AMN Reviews: Horatiu Radulescu – Piano Sonatas & String Quartets Vol. 1 [Mode 290]

MI0004024730Although originating in France and particularly identified with the work of composer Gérard Grisey, Spectralism also flourished in Romania. Horatiu Radulescu (1942-2008), a Romanian composer who for a period took up residence in Paris, crafted a Franco-Romanian Spectralism with unique characteristics of its own. The three works presented on this CD—two piano sonatas played by Stephen Clarke and one string quartet—trace the development of Radulescu’s variation on Spectralism in the period 1990-2003.

Radulescu studied in the Bucharest Academy of Music in the late 1960s, relocating to Paris after his graduation in 1969. In the early 1970s, he took summer courses at Darmstadt with Cage, Ligeti, Stockhausen and Xenakis. He continued to esteem Xenakis’s music throughout his life. Also in the early 1970s he was a student of Messiaen at the Paris Conservatoire. His artistic aim was to create a “sound plasma” of dynamic musical textures through which the listener could become immersed in the microtonal nuances deriving from the overtone series. He drew inspiration from the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu as well as from Pythagoras; many of his works—including the three on this release—are titled or subtitled with lines from Stephen Mitchell’s translation/paraphrase of the Tao Te Ching.

The two piano sonatas—No. 2 of 1991 and No. 5 of 2003—represent a kind of synthetic Spectralism—a Spectralism that is concerned with natural harmonics, but as interpreted through the instrument’s equal temperament. Also part of the synthesis is Romanian folk song, which provided Radulescu with melodic source material. The sonatas are distinct from Radulescu’s early experiments with retuned, bowed piano and show him now turning to the conventional piano. Piano Sonata No. 2, which is from a set of three piano sonatas (Nos. 2, 3 & 4) commissioned by pianist Ortwin Stürmer, incorporates themes taken from the Bb, C and B overtone series as well as a hexatonic mode with a B root. The textures are sparse and prismatic, and appear to develop their thematic material through repetition and fragmentation. Piano Sonata No. 5, like No. 2 a three-movement work, arranges Romanian folk motifs in multi-tempo canons in which the modal flavor of the melodies is particularly pronounced.

The CD’s centerpiece, both literally in terms of its placement and figuratively in its capacity to compel attention, is Radulescu’s String Quartet No. 5, titled “before the universe was born.” Realized here by the JACK Quartet, the piece is a tour de force of extended timbre amounting to a sort of dissonant counterpoint with instrumental color. The glassy sounds of sul ponticello bowing and high harmonics, and the frequent uses of multiphonics all make for an otherworldly sonic texture—quite literally, as at times the quartet sound as if they’re channeling the rising and falling squeals of extraterrestrial lightning-generated radio waves. It is a powerful performance of a thrilling work.

Daniel Barbiero