Piano Sonatas & String Quartets, Vol. 1  by  Horatiu Radulescu   Stephen Clarke  (piano)  JACK Quartet  (Mode Records, Mar. 2016)  Reviewed by  William Dougherty

Piano Sonatas & String Quartets, Vol. 1
by Horatiu Radulescu
Stephen Clarke (piano)
JACK Quartet
(Mode Records, Mar. 2016)

Reviewed by William Dougherty

It has been nearly a decade since the last new recording featuring the music of radical Romanian composer Horatiu Radulescu. That 2007 disc, entitled Intimate Rituals, showcased two of Radulescu’s most distinctive works for strings: his Das Andere, Op. 49 for solo viola, and his Intimate Rituals XI, Op. 63 for viola and “sound icon,” his signature “augmented” instrument, a grand piano turned on its side and played with rosined strings. Radulescu was sixty-four years old at the time of that release, and had firmly established himself on the European new music scene as a visionary with an intensely uncompromising approach, self-described as spectralism. Citing his 1969 work Credo, Op. 10 for nine celli, he somewhat controversially proclaimed himself the founder of the spectral movement—a status typically reserved for French names like Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail. Due to the often challenging and idiosyncratic technical demands of his music, Radulescu spent his career cultivating a small circle of close relationships with enthusiastic performers and ensembles in and around Paris, Freiburg, and Vevey, the three cities he called home after emigrating from Romania at twenty-seven. Intimate Rituals was a testament to one such close collaboration, with the French violist and spectral music advocate Vincent Royer.

In his later years, Radulescu was a prolific recording artist, and after 1993, with the support of various ensembles and festivals, released a new CD of his works on average annually. As with the 2007 album, Radulescu closely supervised these recordings, often performing on or conducting them himself. (He was one of the sound icon players on the aforementioned disc.) Radulescu went so far as to make his presence at rehearsals and recording sessions a contractual obligation for access to his scores—and with good-reason, since his scores often contain notational ambiguities that require clarification or even, when it comes to certain extended techniques, physical demonstration. But this hands-on approach, while ensuring that interpretations would be close to Radulescu’s heart, had a devastating flaw: it relied too heavily on the composer’s physical presence.

A little over a year after the release of Intimate Rituals, Radulescu passed away, and with that, the steady stream of recording projects came to a screeching halt. Without Radulescu’s on-site expertise, performers were unable to answer the pressing interpretive questions posed by his scores, let alone overcome the myriad unconventional technical challenges. But it was not only the absence of Radulescu’s indispensable guidance that caused this almost ten-year recording hiatus. Radulescu’s personal archives were also left in disarray following his death. His family, struggling with the daunting task of distributing performance materials, quickly found the situation unmanageable. (Though they have gradually brought Lucero Print, Radulescu’s self-publishing company, back online in recent years, the family is still only able to offer scores and parts of select works, some of which do not appear in their final, copy-edited form.) With this confluence of unfortunate circumstances, it became an uphill battle—virtually impossible, in many cases—for new ensembles and soloists to perform and record Radulescu’s music.

All the more remarkable, then, for Mode Records to release this new disc, featuring two previously unrecorded works, Radulescu’s seminal String Quartet No. 5, Op. 89 before the universe was born, and the Piano Sonata No. 5, Op. 106 settle your dust, this is the primal identity. Also included is the Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 82 being and non-being create each other. Featuring the inimitable JACK Quartet as well as the adventuresome Canadian pianist Stephen Clarke, the new disc signals the dawn of a new era for Radulescu recordings. The JACK Quartet is, in fact, planning to tackle all six of Radulescu’s string quartets in the coming years, a daring project that should be lauded not only for promoting a rich body of work that desperately needs high-profile support from world-class practitioners, but also (if their past live performances of these scores are any evidence) for courageously overcoming interpretative challenges that so often require the composer’s hands-on guidance, but which will from now on lack it.

In the years after 2008, those intent on investigating Radulescu’s rich oeuvre inevitably found themselves in contact with the composer’s dear friend and confidant, the Irish musicologist Bob Gilmore. Unwittingly taking over the helm, Gilmore became the de facto torch-bearer for all-things Radulescu. One of the few people with access to invaluable primary sources, including the composer’s writings, archival recordings, scores, and even some audio and video documentation of rehearsals, Gilmore was indispensable. As concerns the present disc, there exist no commercial recordings of the Fifth Quartet, so the JACK Quartet naturally sought out Gilmore’s advice. But less than a month after penning the liner notes, Gilmore himself passed away, striking another blow to Radulescu’s legacy and, potentially, putting a damper once more on future recording projects.

Luckily for the JACK Quartet, they were also able to work one-on-one with Royer, and in any case, they are experts at handling just the sorts of technical gymnastics that Radulescu’s music demands—a fact to which this recording is testament. The Fifth Quartet, which takes its title and inspiration from the Tao Te Ching, the ancient text by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, demands an almost inhuman degree of pitch accuracy. Radulescu frequently employs extremely high harmonics positioned on the uppermost regions of the strings, where the slightest variation in finger placement (without the support of the thumb around the instrument’s neck) can drastically alter the pitch. At the same time, the strings of the quartet are tuned in a spectral scordatura, whereby certain high harmonics on one string of one instrument are made to correspond—in theory, at least—with those of another. (For example, the ninth partial of the cello’s lowest string should match the second partial of the viola’s second highest string.) JACK handles these hurdles with remarkable ease and grace, offering a polished slickness that some of the archival recordings I have heard lack. But this of course begs the question: when it came to live performances that Radulescu supervised, was he deliberately seeking the hazier, less pristine execution heard on the tapes, or has the JACK Quartet, with its second-generation interpretation, tapped into something he in fact wanted, but which was simply unattainable by the ensembles of his time?

Without the composer, these questions may never be answered—and for now, it may be a moot point, for regardless of Radulescu’s intentions, JACK’s refined interpretation introduces a refreshing level of cohesion into a work that is often remarkably chaotic-sounding in its juxtapositions of wildly fluctuating and timbrally varied string textures. Throughout, layers of unstable webs of harmonics and gritty extended string techniques collide. These undulating surfaces often require each player to irregularly vary bow position and pressure, while sporadically (and sometimes very precisely) lightly touching each string to produce certain pre-ordained sets of overtones. Despite the marked timbral unpredictability of such extended string techniques, the JACK Quartet admirably achieves a sense of “controlled chaos”—a balance between each member’s individual execution of the various extended techniques that in turn points to the underlying homogeneity within each section. But perhaps even more notable is their dedication to extremes: when Radulescu asks for extremely high bow pressure, the JACK Quartet actually oblige, making the contrasts between juxtaposed blocks of sound all the more convincing.

As for Stephen Clarke, he is a specialist in the music of another comparably uncompromising twentieth-century visionary, Giacinto Scelsi, and he offers up similarly compelling interpretations of the two piano sonatas. Like the Fifth Quartet, both works take their subtitles and inspiration from Lao Tzu’s text. As with all of Radulescu’s Lao Tzu Sonatas (as the second through fifth are collectively titled), these works are built upon a mixture of Romanian folksong-style melodies and rhythms, rigorous structuralist procedures, and spectrally derived harmonies.

Clarke’s interpretation compliments the previously recorded versions of the Second Sonata, one from a 1993 disc released on Ars Musici and one from a 2004 release on cpo records. Both feature the virtuoso German pianist and frequent Radulescu collaborator, Ortwin Stürmer, who commissioned and premiered the Second and Fourth sonatas, in addition to the massive piano concerto The Quest, Op. 90. Though Stürmer’s recordings set a formidable precedent, Clarke’s new readings, which are distinguished in their clarity and force, make a significant contribution. Clarke emphasizes the irregularity of the asymmetrical, folk-inspired figures, and he takes great care in sensitively blending sonorities. His approach to the sonata’s many bell-like figures and expansive, spectrally derived chords lets him achieve timbres reminiscent of the French Spectral School and their experiments with inharmonic bells and additive synthesis.

As with the Fifth Quartet, the Fifth Piano Sonata here receives its long-awaited recording debut (though the Russian pianist-composer Irina Emeliantseva, who performed the work in 2004 at Freiburg’s KlangWerk Festival, and thus worked directly with Radulescu, has uploaded a video recording of a recent performance to YouTube). But unlike the Fifth String Quartet, the score for the Fifth Sonata is notated in quite straightforward terms. As with all of Radulescu’s piano sonatas, it does not call for any idiosyncratic extended techniques. In that sense, Clarke did not need the sort of hands-on guidance the JACK Quartet required—but that certainly does not take away from the work’s difficulty. The Fifth Sonata is full of strict, closely overlapping temporal canons (in both diminution and augmentation), which are based on borrowed Romanian folk melodies. Notated on separate staves and constantly crossing in register, these tightly knit canons could easily sound like a tangled, inchoate blur. However, Clarke creates a masterful sense of independence and clarity among the layered voices, a feat that reflects not only his technical prowess, but also his deep understanding of this spiritually infused music.

After a ten-year break, it seems a new era of Radulescu recordings is finally upon us. Without Radulescu’s hands-on presence, new interpreters like Clarke and the JACK Quartet will necessarily become a part of an aural tradition drawing on insights from seasoned performers like Royer. And while these new interpretations will inevitably differ from what the composer may have had in mind, they are of course the only way for this remarkable music to grow, remain relevant, and attract new audiences. In fact, if we really wish to increase the reach and widen the recording potential of Radulescu’s music, his specialized instrumental techniques and the notational peculiarities of his scores should be documented and made freely available to ensembles and soloists who wish to program them. For now, though, Radulescu’s legacy is in the hands of ambitious performers like the JACK Quartet and Stephen Clarke, who have clearly done their homework.


William Dougherty is a New York-based composer and doctoral student at Columbia University. He contributes to WKCR-FM Radio New York, Berlin-based independent music magazine VAN, and Tempo.