Scelsi: Selected Recordings

As I write this, I've had materials related to Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988) online for twenty years. In fact, it was the early writing on Scelsi that inaugurated this website, although it moved to its home only in 1996. Obviously a lot of time passed, including many events in my own life — my three children being born and growing into young adults, among them — and I had yet to write the sort of selective recording list for Scelsi that has been a mainstay of this site.

One nice thing about twenty years of Scelsi pages without a selective listing is that older discussions are explicitly dated, the less old discussions are explicitly dated, all of the opinions are explicitly dated. And the works list and discography are updated when I learn of anything new. The updates are simple, because all that's involved is adding whatever is new, without changing anything else. As I've learned over & over again in nearly twenty years of this endeavor, a selective listing is a lot more work to maintain: It might require a complete rethinking at any moment, and it often requires new or different prose. So I was able to avoid that here for all this time. Somehow, I've now decided to jump into that fire and list my "essential" recordings for Scelsi.

Although Scelsi's music presents fewer technical challenges than e.g. Xenakis' (the page in this section into which I've put the next most work), and the vast majority has now been recorded, new interpretations do continue to appear. It's also worth noting that most or all of Scelsi's music exists in recording a priori, in his own taped free improvisations, only subsequently notated and attempted by other musicians. Therefore the early recordings are more "coherent" (if we call them that) than some other early recordings devoted to other highly innovative composers, due to the technical realities involved, but we do also see progression in interpretations of Scelsi's music with time, and a greater intimacy & familiarity in turn. So whereas this page will continue to contain many older recordings for the foreseeable future, it will likely change and develop as well.

One thing about the Scelsi discography is that most of the releases seem to consist of a hodge-podge assortment of material... different sorts of ensembles or instruments, even different players. I guess it's my personality to like something more systematic, or more easily used as a reference. So I am certainly prioritizing the recordings that present (nearly) an entire body of works in one place. It's entirely possible there are preferable individual interpretations found on various collections, and as music collections maintained on computer displace albums per se, the possibility to mix & match interpretations and put them into one compilation for oneself becomes not only possible, but perhaps the norm. I'm not sure when or if I'll really embrace that mindset, so for the time being, I am listing albums — here and elsewhere.

The reasons for the choice of entire albums are not only a matter of history or inertia. There is something to be said for a specific group of performers gathering to record a particular set of works at a particular time... a unity, if you will. That kind of unity of expression seems to make particular sense around Scelsi's music.

So with that said, I'll start by listing the two most influential recorded collections of Scelsi's music, both still quite relevant. The recordings of the orchestral music basically launched Scelsi as a worldwide sensation, and were my first acquaintance with his music. This classic set has yet to be duplicated:

Scelsi: Oeuvre intégrale pour choeur et orchestre symphonique
Orchestre et choeur de la Radio-Télévision de Cracovie - Jürg Wyttenbach
Accord 201 692 [3 CDs]

As noted, Scelsi's works also appear in a variety of collections, and that goes for the orchestral works as well. There are other recordings of all of them, with the exception of Pfhat (as far as I know, and it's a rather simple piece). Some might be superior on an individual basis, but the classic full set has such a "sweep" that it's hard to displace. Aion (1961) begins the first disc, and has long been my favorite, although the "violin concerto" Anahit (1965) deserves special mention too, as do all nine of these pieces, really. Mode Records has done two recordings of orchestral music in their Scelsi series, although Volume 1 & Volume 2 were recorded more than five years apart by completely different ensembles.

Despite leading this listing with the orchestral set, for historical reasons, I am personally oriented more toward smaller ensembles, and Scelsi's five string quartets form a body of work that nicely spans his oeuvre. The classic set by the Arditti Quartet, also recorded in 1988, has likewise never been duplicated:

Scelsi: Les cinq Quatours à Cordes
Arditti Quartet et al.
Salabert 8904-5 [2 CDs]

In this case, the Arditti Quartet actually recorded this music once before, giving their Salabert set an even greater amount of polish. Quartets Nos. 2-4, which are part of the central body of Scelsi's music, have been recorded by other groups, but not all together. Quartet No. 1, which dates to Scelsi's more orthodox style of composition (and is a rather appealing piece in its own way) has not otherwise been recorded, whereas Quartet No. 5 is found more on record in its original version for modified piano, Aitsi (1974).

String instruments, with their ability to freely execute microtones and glissandi, as well as to sustain pitch, have clearly been the most successful medium for performing Scelsi's music. The extensions to string technique required, with his notation for individual strings, often with scordatura or individual mutes, are also a contribution to the general body of instrumental technique. Although Scelsi did write various studies for individual wind instruments, as well as a few appealing mixed chamber ensemble pieces (and we have yet to see a recorded collection really focused on these), it's his sequence of string pieces, starting particularly with the Trio (1958) & Quartet No. 2 (1961) that are his most compelling music. The solo or duo wind pieces generally date from the 1950s, when Scelsi was still putting a lot of focus on piano music, with Ko-Lho (1966) being the only such piece from the height of his creative period. The string music through the 1960s and into the 70s, however, is ample and incredible, and often deeply personal.

Among the least personal of these pieces, actually, are Scelsi's works for larger string ensembles, partly reworkings of his Quartets for larger forces. In that sense, they're almost simpler music, putting less emphasis on individual virtuosity, letting more players do the work of fewer. Nonetheless, these are very potent works. One could also describe them as projecting more intimate pieces onto a larger canvas, more suitable for the public, yet retaining the purity of string playing (as opposed to the larger mixed orchestra pieces). A particularly good recording:

Scelsi: Natura Renovatur
Frances-Marie Uitti / Münchener Kammerorchester - Christoph Poppen
ECM New Series 1963

This music has had multiple quality performances, and the above is not the first. However, it is especially forceful & dramatic. This might be the best initial introduction to Scelsi for many listeners. The more modern sound recording technology, as opposed to the classic late-80s sets above, is also very welcome, helping to make it a great introduction. Although on some philosophical levels, sound quality pales next to material & interpretation, music is still about sound, Scelsi's music more explicitly than most, and clear sound is welcome to the ear.

The program above is not definitive, leaving out as it does Elohim (1965/67), but this is the least compelling of the four such works, with Natura Renovatur (1967; a reworking of Scelsi's Quartet No. 4, 1964) being one of his most canonical musical statements. Also included is Frances-Marie Uitti performing Ygghur (1965), one of Scelsi's most important solo works, as well as a couple of simple pieces. Uitti is perhaps the most significant Scelsi historian and interpreter, with her 1978 recording of Trilogia (1956-65) being a seminal recording in the Scelsi discography. More recently, a new & outstanding performance of that cycle has been recorded:

Scelsi: Trilogia
Arne Deforce
Aeon 0748

Trilogia for solo cello is basically Scelsi's autobiography in sound, and a cycle to which he devoted long attention. It is therefore one of the most significant works in his catalog, if not the most significant, and the longest piece (if we consider the whole cycle) he wrote. That it's written for solo cello is emblematic of Scelsi's predilection for strings and small forces. Solo string performance is also the most virtuosic expression of Scelsi's music. The recording in modern sound by Arne Deforce is truly outstanding, with perhaps the only quibble being a wish that he had included Scelsi's other short set for solo cello, Voyages (1974).

Although Trilogia is unique in Scelsi's output, his production for solo cello is not as large (in number of pieces anyway) as it is for some other string instruments. Additionally, Scelsi's duos for strings include some of his best music, and these are often included with the solo works. Three quality surveys in the Mode Records series devoted to bass, viola, & violin:

Scelsi: The Works for Double Bass / Scelsi Edition - 7
Robert Black, et al.
Mode 188
Scelsi: The Viola Works / Scelsi Edition - 9
Vincent Royer
Mode 231
Scelsi: The Violin Works / Scelsi Edition - 10
Weiping Lin
Mode 256

Scelsi's writing for double bass, although starting later in his output than that for other strings, is some of his most compelling. The program by Robert Black simply cannot be beaten, featuring some first recordings — including the staggering duo Kshara (1975) — and the performances are some of the best too. Although perhaps more obscure than the previously mentioned items, the disc is very easy to recommend (even if the 1992 recording by Joëlle Léandre should probably be mentioned too). The viola disc by Vincent Royer also contains some very significant music, particularly the duo Elegia per Ty (1958/66) and Manto (1957/67), well done, although not for the first time. The violin survey is more recent, and features the epic Xnoybis (1964), one of Scelsi's most iconic & recorded works (including this arrangement for winds & on the viola album above), as well as the pair of ethereal solo pieces relating to the soul (L'âme). Forming the bulk of the program are Scelsi's three extant Divertimenti, more traditionally virtuosic works that stand apart from much of his string output.

These Mode discs still leave us without recent recordings of the two string duos including violin, one titled simply Duo (1965), the other Arc-en-ciel (1973). Some of these string pieces previously appeared on two seminal discs on Accord (200 742 & 200 622), including Duo, which were my introduction to all of the pieces included there. (I first heard Arc-en-ciel on this survey by Paul Méfano.) This leaves the violin album not seeming terribly definitive, even if it includes the entire body of solo violin music, and indeed there are other recent albums featuring Scelsi's violin music, none with really definitive programs. By contrast, the bass & viola programs do not leave me wishing they contained more/other. Finally, although I have not been excited enough by Scelsi's fixed-pitch piano music to listen regularly to entire albums of it, even though it continues to draw attention from performers, the shorter piano pieces, such as on those Accord classics, can be appealing, also in a virtuosic way.

While piano music forms a very significant portion of Scelsi's transitional style in the early 1950s, as noted, it is in the microtonal capacity of string music that some of his greatest creativity is expressed. Works for solo or duo string forces reach a developed & characteristic form in the 1960s, and continue through the end of his output, usually with less overt drama over time. The other instrument that can claim a similar status is the human voice, and indeed the types of ornament & inflection & articulation possible from the human voice are another of Scelsi's major contributions to musical technique generally. Among the many works for solo voice from this period, the Canti del Capricorno (1962/72) clearly stand out:

Scelsi: Canti del Capricorno
Michiko Hirayama et al.
Wergo 60127-50
Scelsi: Canti del Capricorno
Michiko Hirayama, et al.
Wergo 6686

With these two recordings, we also have the intriguing chance to hear the same interpreter — and the interpreter with whom Scelsi developed this music — perform the same cycle more than twenty years later. I find this particularly interesting in the case of the voice, which obviously changes over a person's lifetime. Although not as compelling to me as the music for strings, these "songs" (made of nonsense syllables) do have a distinct appeal of their own, and document a significant aspect of Scelsi's musical exploration. They can also be performed independently, and a handful have been otherwise recorded.

In addition to writing many pieces for solo voice (perhaps with light rhythmic accompaniment), Scelsi wrote music for larger vocal ensembles. This includes three of his orchestral works (and only four are purely orchestral works). Whereas the music for solo voice, much like the music for solo strings, provides an intimate opportunity to focus on the smallest articulations, the music for more voices provides an opportunity to hear his unique style in something of a counterpoint. A definitive program:

Scelsi: Intégrale des oeuvres chorales
New London Chamber Choir / Percussive Rotterdam - James Wood
Accord 206 812

Most of this music has also appeared elsewhere, but is nicely collected here in one place in a quality (although not revelatory) interpretation. The simple prayers and antiphon have no real appeal to me, but the other items are of interest, if less than the preceding. In particular the two sets of Tre Canti (1958) occupy an interesting chronological place in Scelsi's output, Yliam (1964) & TKRDG (1968) date from the height of his creative period and are representative of it, and Sauh (1973) fits well with some of his more ethereal late solo string pieces.

If there is something particularly significant that I've missed, I hope someone will tell me.

Back to main Giacinto Scelsi page.

Todd M. McComb
Original: 21 November 2011
Last update: 4 August 2013