Ligeti’s music exudes the aura
of genius. No small claim, true, but the combination of Pierre-Laurent
Aimard’s traversal of the Etudes
at the Wigmore Hall last Thursday and
this inspired programming of the three major solo concerti plus the
Concert Românesc (‘Romanian Concerto’) convinced this reviewer,
Packed to the rafters, an enlarged
Sinfonietta (to the size of a chamber orchestra) gave its all in the
Romanian Concerto. Quite a thought that this was the UK première,
over 50 years after it was written! Composed in 1951, it represents
a folk-immersed Ligeti who wears the face of one of Bartók’s
close relatives. The rich harmonisation of the opening Andantino (derived
from an earlier composition called ‘Ballad’) and the dancing rhythms
of the second movement (complete with piping piccolo: a real Romanian
hoe-down!) acted as the perfect foil to the spacially-separated horn
writing of the Adagio ma non troppo and the catchy, busy finale. Benjamin’s
conducting was, as always, functional, although he does always look
rather uncomfortable as a conductor, his gestures rather stiff.
After Aimard’s Wigmore recital,
it was difficult not get excited about the prospect of his performance
of the Piano Concerto (1985-88). As in the Etudes, Eastern European
and non-Western cultures combine to deliver a rich tapestry over the
course of its five movements. The performers brought a great sensation
of stasis to the ‘Lento e deserto’, with its nocturnal slitherings.
The fractured yet playful exchanges of the fourth movement were disturbed
by what can only be a deliberately Romantic gesture. In fact, Aimard
and Benjamin seemed at pains to emphasise the lyrical side to this work.
Over and over again, the thought that Aimard is simply perfect for this
music kept recurring.
Despite the fact he is one of
the world’s greatest living exponents of his instrument, horn-player
Michael Thompson still deserves some sort of bravery award for taking
on the Hamburg Concerto (1998-2001). Ligeti seems to have an
insider’s knowledge of the horn: the juxtaposition and contrasting of
valved/natural horn(s) is an important part of the work’s individuality
(Thompson has to alternate both, plus the orchestral horns are of the
natural variety). Ligeti also uses ‘micro-tuning’, which itself raises
questions. It was interesting to hear that this technique can make the
sound ‘warmer’ (the opposite to what one might expect), yet how can
the player stop an altered note sounding just as if the note is not
‘centred’, in timbral rather than in pitch terms: some of the depth
of tone is lost in the process of ‘bending’ the note.
With the resource of solo and
orchestral horns, no surprise that a fair amount of call-and-response
is present here. The fourth movement raised questions as to how much
Ligeti had been influenced by Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn
and Strings, the fifth raised questions as to human stamina. Thompson
is asked to enter the horn stratosphere, and went through several different
shades of skin-colour doing so. This was a triumphant performance of
a remarkable piece. The difficulties it presents ensure that playership
is necessarily limited, but there is no doubting that this is a major
addition to the horn repertoire.
A wise decision to leave the Violin
Concerto until last. The young Isabelle Faust has been causing quite
a stir in critical circles, and it is easy to see why. Ligeti’s Violin
Concerto (1989-92), written for Saschko Gawriloff, ranks with the Berg
concerto in terms of supreme beauty coupled with all-embracing craftsmanship.
The recognisably Eastern European rhythms of the first movement and
the angular lines of the finale were given with great panache. They
surrounded three movements of the utmost loveliness, be it the ocarina
choir (who stood up for their chorales), or the finely-spun solo lines
of the Intermezzo against a characteristically shadowy accompaniment.
Although there exists a published cadenza, Faust opted to play one based
on Christian Tetzlaff’s. It emerged out of a sonically disappearing
orchestra: Faust’s stopping was quite remarkable. But then again, so
was the entire concert.