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Bamberg Symphony in New York (II): Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Piano, Stiftung Bamberger Symphoniker – Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie, Jonathan Nott, Chief Conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 8 May, 2005 (BH)

Ligeti: Atmosphères (1961)
Mahler: Adagio from Symphony No. 10 (1910)
Ligeti: Etudes for Solo Piano, Nos. 7, 8, 5, 10, 11, and 13 (1985-94)
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73 ("Emperor") (1809)

In the second of their two concerts here, Jonathan Nott and his excellent Bamberg players offered still more Ligeti, starting with Atmosphères, one of the great trailblazing works of the 1960s. As with Lontano (presented on the first of these concerts) this is music whose chief concerns are color and texture. Movement, harmony and traditional melodic flow, not to mention chord progression, are irrelevant. This is music that opens a brand-new door, asking the listener to abandon many expectations about what constitutes music. The reedy sound of the Bamberg group was a delight, creating a cloud of ions much different than Abbado in his recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, or Chailly’s performances with the Concertgebouw in the mid-1990s.

Comparable to his Mahler Todtenfeier two nights earlier, Nott led a heartbreaking performance of the Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. This anguished, strikingly orchestrated fragment is at the harmonic apex of the composer’s output, simultaneously looking backward and far forward, and asking many more questions than it answers. Although the completed symphony by Deryck Cooke has many pleasures in its scrupulously informed scholarship, in the Adagio one hears “the genuine article,” showing the composer embarking on yet more departures from tonality and traditional structure, and an aching, yearning quality. The chord progressions are striking, climaxing with the huge 9-note cluster near the end that (not coincidentally in Nott’s head, I suspect) bore a resemblance to the Ligeti that preceded it. The haunting opening showed off the slightly austere timbre of the Bamberg violas, and the high registers in the violins were piercingly intense.

After intermission, Pierre Laurent-Aimard took the stage for another mini-recital of Ligeti’s Etudes for solo piano, and as on Friday, seemed completely delighted to be encountering them, as he might greet old friends. And as before, “only superhumans need apply,” and Aimard is one of a handful of pianists whose abilities make these endlessly fascinating studies seem effortless. Doubting Thomases need only have heard the final one, No. 13, Le Escalier du Diable (The Devil’s Staircase) that quite simply had my mouth hanging open. Just watching Aimard’s hands criss-crossing one another was an entertainment in itself.

Aimard returned to the stage with the orchestra for a thrilling Beethoven Emperor Concerto, which only clinched my desire to acquire his complete set of these concerti (with Nicholas Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe). As with his Fourth on the first concert, the interplay between Aimard, Nott and the orchestra was sheer pleasure, with the players offering vigorous playing which Aimard often countered with gleeful grace. Of course, there are endless ways to imagine these pieces, but I don’t think the Emperor gets much better than this.

To close, Mr. Nott and his fine orchestra unexpectedly won the unofficial competition for “Encore of the Year.” As Mr. Aimard gracefully retired after the Beethoven, extra players scurried back onstage as Nott readied himself at the podium. Launched by a trumpet, the work was a flurry of Hungarian folk rhythms, sounding familiar at first, but then not so. A friend turned and silently mouthed, “Bartók?” – which was my first guess as well, although then I thought it might be Enescu, and later my friend suggested Kodály. The truth floored us: more Ligeti, the final movement of his Concert Românesc from 1951. This bracing, electrically played bit of exotica was the startling crown of a memorably insightful afternoon.

Bruce Hodges

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)