Double Manual – Peter de Jager plays Xenakis

David Barmby

An Olympian tour-de-force of virtuosity and an awe-inspiring test of endurance.
Double Manual – Peter de Jager plays Xenakis

Image: Peter de Jager. Photo credit Lucia Ondrusova.

German philosopher and musicologist Theodor Adorno wrote: “there can be no lyric poetry after Auschwitz”.  A response to this statement in music after 1945 was ‘Total Serialism’, where all aspects of composition are governed by a series of values with little other intervention.  Greek-French composer Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) took this to the furthest limits by applying abstract mathematics and theory from his work as an engineer and architect in the studio of Le Corbusier to his compositions, referring to the style as ‘stochastic music’.  Xenakis’s ‘Maximalist’ work presents music of extremes.  It represents the frosty peak of complexity and tests the endurance of instrument, performer and listener.  Presenting five works for keyboard back to back in one program was real Festival fare and Victorian pianist Peter de Jager achieved this monumental feat summa cum laude.

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In familiarising myself with this rare repertoire over the past days I’ve studied several scores as well as listened to recordings.  The complexity of this work is awe-inspiring, with keyboard music sometimes written over five staves.  Xenakis has even written over ten staves, or as a writer once commented: ‘one for each finger’.  I found that I could only study each work for 15 minutes at a sitting, so complex and full of information they were.  Each bar presents its own challenges, be it a block of polyrhythmic scales running in every direction or pointillist material written over extremes of range and played as fast as possible.  The harpsichord with its two manuals that can be independently registered presents the composer with even more possibilities for further complexity.

The program comprised works for amplified harpsichord (Khoaï, 1976 and Naama, 1984) and for the piano (Evryali, 1973, Mists, 1980 and Herma, 1961).  The harpsichord Xenakis writes for is a 20th-century invention, bearing little resemblance to any historic instrument.  De Jager used his own harpsichord for this recital, perfect for the repertoire, a large 1968 ‘Bach’ Model instrument made by Wittmayer.  Swapping from piano to harpsichord must have presented extra challenges for the soloist with different touch and attack considerations, let alone the multiple registration changes that need to be carried out with pedals and keyboard levers.  The sheer physical awkwardness and angularity of the harpsichord technique required was mesmerizing to witness.  De Jager appeared to be tireless as he ploughed his way from one work to the other. The piano works were brilliantly carried out, though the dynamic extremes of the music sometimes exceeded the acoustic limitations of this small room.

The recital was enthusiastically appreciated by a capacity audience in the Salon of the Melbourne Recital Centre comprising many ‘baby-boomers’ who may have first heard this music in the years it was written.  Only one member of the audience walked out and that was owing to a coughing fit.  This 75-minute concert was clearly the result of hundreds of hours of painstaking work in rehearsal by de Jager.  It was an Olympian tour-de-force of virtuosity, a remarkable event and achievement.

It was a pity that the Melbourne Festival or the Melbourne Recital Centre did not provide annotations so that the audience could have placed this rare repertoire in context.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5

Double Manual – Peter de Jager plays Xenakis
Peter de Jager, piano and amplified harpsichord
Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre
Tuesday, 17 October, 2017 
Presented by the Melbourne Festival and the Melbourne Recital Centre

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

David Barmby is former head of artistic planning of Musica Viva Australia, artistic administrator of Bach 2000 (Melbourne Festival), the Australian National Academy of Music and Melbourne Recital Centre.