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S & H Concert Review

Ligeti at 80 Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Michael Thompson, Isabelle Faust, London Sinfonietta/George Benjamin, Barbican Hall, Saturday, October 18th, 2003 (CC)


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, at least.

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.

Colin Clarke



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