Saturday, October 17, 2009
As is, unfortunately, often the case, I first became aware of Radulescu's music on the announcement of his death last year. His name is invariably associated with the so-called "spectral" school of music (though, the composers labeled as such would be the first to point out the error inherent in this sort of tagging). I had been intrigued by what I had read about his music — his use of "sound icons" (a grand piano turned on its side and played directly on the strings) and his use of the overtone series (an approach composers like Per Nørgård and Tristan Murail have mined since the 1970s).
With this reputation one would expect these sonatas to be examples of arch-modernism; they are actually relatively conventional, but this by no means a fault.
Referred to collectively as the "Lao tzu" sonatas, these piano pieces each have as their subtitle a quotation from the Tao Te Ching, and the pieces reflect this mystical attitude in their feeling of stasis and non-development within each movement; the musical material is rather than becomes. Themes are contrasted and combined rather than formally developed, which recalls Boulez's comment that Olivier Messiaen "didn't compose, he juxtaposed". Much could be said for these sonatas, but Radulescu's insistent rhythms and almost-tonal snatches of melody make these more interesting and memorable than Messiaen's mature pieces for the instrument.
Radulescu wrote three more piano sonatas other than those collected here: one early piece from 1968 and two later pieces from 2003 and 2007 respectively. Thus far only 2-4 have been recorded — indeed, precious little of Radulescu's music exists on disc, but one hopes that will soon change. These are fascinating and absolutely musical pieces that beg further exploration.