Three things to remember about Edgard Varèse: firstly, he composed very little music that survives; secondly, he was a hugely influential composer to the post Second World War avant-gardists; and thirdly, that all his music is expertly crafted and characterful. For many he is a peripheral figure of raucous oddities, but in reality, his brand of poetic hyper-expressionism has been central to much music composition from the 1950s onwards. So, this Total Immersion day into the world of Varèse and his just over three hours of output by the BBC is one of the most significant they have yet undertaken. This BBC Symphony Orchestra concert crowned the whole event including all his larger scale works.

Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in <i>Arcana</i> © BBC | Mark Allan
Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Arcana
© BBC | Mark Allan

The evening started literally with a bang with the second of Varèse’s large scale orchestral works, Arcana (1925–27). This certainly set the benchmark for the whole evening performance wise, with the greatly expanded BBCSO clearly on fantastic form in this difficult to perform music, capturing its demonic wildness with ease. Sakari Oramo’s approach was refreshing, moving away from Boulez’s analytical unpicking, instead going for broke in terms of drama and intensity. Never has the work sounded so supernatural and possessed, it’s close affinity with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring hovering just out of sight behind every note.

Next up was a performance of Nocturnal (1961) a work for soprano, male chorus and small orchestra. The last new work of Varèse to be performed, it was in fact pieced together from fragments by the composers assistant Chou Wen-Chung. The result is poetical and mysterious, but not entirely convincing, included for completeness sake, but well executed by Allison Bell and the BBC Singers. Etude pour Espace, mostly composed in 1947, but again pulled together by Chou Wen-Chung, is a small fragment of a work that the composer was planning for 20 years, a grand choral symphony to be called Espace. A short work for chorus and orchestra, it again had poetry on its side, some beautiful passages and a dedicated performance.

The next piece was one of the most important of the composers works, Déserts, (1950–54). In this work, the composer introduced for the first time an element of electronic music, three interpolations of pre-recorded taped “music of the stars”. The effect of these interpolations is to make the human element, provided here by 15 instrumentalists, seem more earthbound and impotent. The otherworldly sounds of the tapes takes us into a world way beyond the confines of Western classical music and it remains still as some of the most imaginative electronic music ever written. Given a convincing account by the BBCSO and Oramo, again drawing the drama out of the music, the tapes were projected ideally, retaining their 1950s hiss, but resonant and with a unnerving depth of sound.

The final part of the concert introduced a touch of humour, not something you associate with Varèse. Oramo appeared on the platform while the audience were still arriving back and settling down and the orchestra apparently started to tune. However, it soon became clear that this was a performance of Tuning Up (1947), five minutes of the large orchestra imitating tuning up in the style of Varèse, indeed quoting himself as well as other composers and a welcome release of tension it was too.

This lightness led nicely into the composers first masterpiece, Amériques (1921), one of the great orchestral works of the 20th century. Using one of the largest orchestras in the repertoire it was truly a devastating experience in the confines of the Barbican Hall. Using The Rite of Spring again as its starting place, this time more literally with many quotations and with the wild spirit of the piece. All credit must be given to Oramo and BBCSO for a most outstanding performance, both technically and dramatically. Every orchestral effect was realised, but also a sense of forward movement and structural integrity. The final passage with its apocalyptic dance in slow motion, was incredibly exciting and pure entertainment. Maybe this Total Immersion day will move help shift away from the reverence of Boulez and move works like Amériques and Arcana into the mainstream orchestral repertoire, a place they deserve to be.