liner notes for CPO CD of The Quest:
Concerto for piano and large orchestra Opus 90 by Horatiu Radulescu

Horatiu Radulescu is one of the most original young musicians of our time. We know that in the XXth century – more than in any other, Science and Art go hand in hand. This is particularly true for the music of Radulescu, who has participated in the renewal of musical language.
Olivier Messiaen

Horatiu Radulescu is one of the truly radical voices in European music today. His art  makes an exquisite poetry from the meeting of the scientific and the spiritual. As an authentic contemporary composer, Radulescu has a deep fascination with the “inner life” of musical sound - harmonic scales, scales of unequal intervals corresponding to the partials of the spectrum. His revolutionary approach introduced in 1968-69 – historically for the first time – the spectral language, which is, two thousand years later, a conceptual reply to Pythagoras (see “Ocean of Vibrations – the music of Horatiu Radulescu” by Patrick Szersnovicz, in Le Monde de la Musique, Paris, Nov. 1988), and a realization of the intuitions of both Hindu and Byzantine music, which, the composer says, “were the closest to natural resonance”. Yet at the same time his work manifests a longing for an ancient conception of music’s place in the spiritual life of humanity: a longing, as one of his titles puts it, for a “Music… older than Music”.

Radulescu’s Piano Concerto The Quest, Opus 90, was commissioned by the Hessischer Rundfunk Frankfurt and the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science and the Arts. It is dedicated to the virtuoso Freiburg pianist Ortwin Stürmer, who gave the first performance, with the Radio Sinfonie Orchester, Frankfurt conducted by Lothar Zagrosek, in the Great Hall of the Hessischer Rundfunk in Frankfurt on March 8 1996, preceded on that occasion by Schoenberg's Five Pieces op.16 and Messiaen's Chronochromie. The Quest is the work of a mature artist who has transcended the notoriety and extravagant radicalism of his youth. Born in Bucharest on January 7th 1942, Radulescu left his native Romania in 1969 for Paris, where he became known as the originator of “spectral music”, the techniques for which he developed in a series of compositions beginning in 1969 with Credo for nine celli. Based on the idea of audibly projecting the activity and energy of the various partials, the spectral language took root and now seems one of the most important exits from the serialist stranglehold on contemporary music. Radulescu has developed the technique significantly in the decades since.

It seems surprising, given Radulescu’s obsession with spectral scordatura and with microtonal pitch systems, that much of his most beautiful recent music is for the piano. In fact, the Second Piano Sonata “Being and non-being create each other” (1990-91) and the Fourth Piano Sonata “like a well… older than God” (1993), simulate with the equal-tempered scale of the piano very new harmonic, heterophonic, polyphonic and monodic structures created by the natural self-generative spectral functions, and Radulescu succeeds in these works in rendering the splendour and wild purity of these pitch materials. The Fourth Sonata – described by the pianist Roger Woodward as “a miracle of beauty” – is related to The Quest in several ways, both works exploring (in Hartmut Möller’s words) “the tension between ring-modulated spectral functions and the folk melodies of our ancestors”. The titles of the Second and Fourth Sonatas are from the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu. In that text we find a spiritual philosophy which is very close to the concerns of modern physics; a comparable vision characterises Radulescu’s work. All these recent piano works – the Second and Fourth Sonatas and The Quest – were commissioned by Ortwin Stürmer. The pianist and the composer met in 1990, and Stürmer became immediately enthusiastic about what he describes as the “clarity and magnificence” of Radulescu’s music; he has performed this music to rapturous response in Germany and abroad.

The Quest derives its title from the work of the Romanian writer and scholar of comparative religion Mircea Eliade, and Radulescu intends the title in the mystic sense described by Eliade in his Myth of Religions. In planning the Concerto, Radulescu conceived the overall macroform such that the length of the four movements would adhere to the proportions of the sectio aurea, or Golden Section: 21:8:13:5. The character of the individual movements is very different and all are mutually complimentary; the atmosphere changes with each one. The composer says that the first movement is “very philosophical”, related to late Beethovenian sonata form; the second is “totally cosmic and abstract variations”; the third is “a very dense and opulently orchestrated polyphony/heterophony of eighteen Romanian colinde, integrating the macro-form of a “drunk matrix””; and the fourth is an “ostinato of total joy, a wild ritual”.

The first movement is a new kind of sonata form, based on two main themes and two subsidiary themes. Entitled “The Gate”, the movement is a musical analogy to the sense of opening oneself to a previously unknown experience, “like being invaded by God”. Radulescu describes it as an “Entrance into a Magic Realm”, or in French “sur le seuil de l’univers” — on the threshold of an interior universe. The first theme is in an extraordinary metre of lengthening beats, 2+3+4+5, “an aksak rhythm with valeurs ajoutées”. From the very first bars the metre creates a sense of spaciousness, like a “crescendo-angle of the soul falling into the universe”. The opening sonorities are of brass (playing natural harmonics), percussion and strings; their material is “static as volcanic lava”. In answer the solo piano enters with the melodic profile of the well-known Bach chorale “Es ist genug”. Spectral elements are present here (albeit presented on an equal-tempered piano), as the notes of the chorale — A, B, C#, D# — are analogous to harmonics 8, 9, 10, and 11 of an A fundamental. The second theme is a Romanian carol, from the collection made by Bartók at the beginning of the century in Transylvania. Again, Radulescu conceives this melody in spectral terms: although the mode is an F dorian, the F can be thought of as the 13th partial of an Ab fundamental. The melody is presented as a diffraction canon in simultaneous different tempi. In their development, both themes move far away from their original shape. They cross each other and become mutually dependent; at times it seems that only a fading memory of them remains. Radulescu uses the retrograde of the opening rhythm, 5+4+3+2, and at the end of the movement superimposes both this retrograde and the original in a striking passage of rhythmic polyphony.

The second movement, entitled “The Second Sound, The Sacred”, grows from a piano cadenza which Radulescu likens to an acoustical Calder mobile. This cadenza returns repeatedly, interrupting the music. These outbursts consist of loud, resonant chords conceived spectrally. Set against them are “distortion elements”, passages for soloist groups or tutti, like “rays of light” around the soloist. The movement also has a striking downward-moving background, provided by Thaï gongs and the low notes of an Imperial Bösendorfer piano in the orchestra; together they create a new and fantastically rich complex sonority. The second movement is built from an F# spectrum. From it, Radulescu derives chords by means of self-generating functions, e.g. partials 4+7 giving 11, or 5+16 giving 21 (the trumpets, at the beginning of the movement, introduce these materials). “These harmonic relations are natural ones”, the composer says, and are “independent of the contrapuntal trajectories of music history”.

The third movement, “Ancestors’ Chants”, is a tour de force of polyphony and heterophony. It is based on eighteen carols, colinde, most of them from Bartók’s collection, and many of which, Radulescu says, could be several thousand years old. From them, he builds an extraordinary music of songs; the carols produce a sonorous “stained-glass window”. The macroform of the movement involves what Radulescu calls a “drunk matrix”, in which one section is nearly equidistant with the next but not precisely so: the result resembles a forest with a succession of ever younger and ever older trees. The melodies are like “the stones in the ocean, or in the sea. They are like Brancusi played by the sea for ten thousand years, so you get fantastic stones.” The apparent simplicity of the melodies, some of which use only three or four pitches, gave the composer the sense of a proto-language which he could develop free of convention. Tempi and micro-agogic shifts in the melodies help to create the sense of “an archetypal oniric world”.

The finale, “The Origin”, returns to a succession of block mobiles with an accelerating metre of 3 3 3 3… 3 2 3 3… 2 3 3 2… 2 2 2 3 to 2 2 2 2. Each of these micro-metres has its own type of music. Throughout, the timpani keep an insistent pulse, like a heartbeat, stopping only once in the movement, like a sudden sharp intake of breath. An obsessive A spectrum is overlayed with other spectra. “The macro-accelerando gives rise to ever-stronger collisions between harmonic worlds”, the composer writes, “and ends the Concerto in a climax of light.”

Despite Radulescu’s love for the piano concertos of Beethoven and Brahms, The Quest is not a work that invites the ego-emphatic projection characteristic of the more conventional solo concerto. Throughout the work, the solo piano and the orchestra remain most of the time in a varied but essentially balanced dialogue, bearing little relation to classical bravura. “Each instrument in the orchestra and the soloist induce three levels of the “da sein”: the unknown, the known, and the hyperknown,” writes the composer, “and each musician is at times important to the expression of the intuition, perception, feeling and thought of the music.” It is a measure of Radulescu’s achievement that he has managed to make such a substantial addition to this most traditional of genres while at the same time remaining true to his own deepest vision of the demands of the truly new music of our time.

© Bob Gilmore, 1998
~ by Horatiu Radulescu on November 2, 2008.