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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Ensemble Intercontemporain (II): Ligeti: Piano Concerto (1985-88), Rihm: Jagden und Formen (1995-2001, U.S. Premiere), Michael Wendeberg, piano, Ensemble intercontemporain, Jonathan Nott, conductor, Rose Theatre at Time Warner Center, New York City, 25 May, 2005 (BH)

In the second of two concerts here, the exuberant Jonathan Nott chose two works that, like the previous night, matched his understated skill with the Swiss watch precision of the Ensemble intercontemporain. The Ligeti Piano Concerto might be one of the 20th century’s greatest concerti for the instrument, with echoes of the composer’s ridiculously difficult Etudes for piano solo (a clutch of which were presented by Pierre-Laurent Aimard in Nott’s two concerts here earlier in May with the Bamberg Symphony), and a high level of imagination in its five movements. The pianist was the ensemble’s own Michael Wendeberg, in totally confident form, gently grooving with some of the jazzier colors that Nott found in the score. The Concerto’s scintillating orchestration includes novelties such as a slide-whistle, kazoos and a harmonica, which tickle the ear with their unexpectedly graceful appearances. The fourth movement is unusual in its contrast between the piano, with fixed tunings, and the orchestra, which is retuned, creating a tangy tension. Another notable passage is in the final Presto luminoso, a “virtuosic coda” for the entire ensemble, with a particularly luminous and engaging part for the xylophone.

Rihm’s galloping Jagden und Formen is a ferocious snarl of a piece, a paean to perpetual motion. At almost an hour, it does test some listeners who feel that its ideas run out of steam, but I’m not one of those. The world premiere recording, with the Ensemble Modern conducted by Dominque My, is highly addictive: in the last year or so, I’ve heard it perhaps a dozen times, including in a car while driving in the desert near Los Angeles.

The work opens with a crisp handclap for the entire group, introducing a folksy figure for solo violin (the ensemble’s incomparable Hae-Sun Kang) that eventually leads to nervously exciting gestures passed throughout the ensemble, sometimes section by section. The strings might play feverishly while the winds and brass are at a virtual standstill, until those roles are reversed. In many sections the plethora of tempi colliding with each other make the work seem about to overwhelm itself, not to mention those of us in the audience hanging on for dear life. About two-thirds of the way through, the work quiets down for a few minutes, before resuming its nonstop motion. To say that this is a difficult work is a laughable understatement, and it takes great virtuosity, not to mention stamina, to achieve the effect that Rihm wants. In an interview with Nott earlier in the day, he mentioned the challenges of keeping the momentum under control, since even slight variances in tempi among the musicians could spell disaster. Fortunately, as far as I could tell nothing vaguely close to that occurred, and the result was a rush of gurgling rhythms and textures, a glittering blur.

As an aside, after hearing this outstanding group in back-to-back nights in the Rose Theatre, I’m not completely convinced this space is ideal for acoustic (i.e., unamplified) music. The venue was designed specifically for jazz, for which it works beautifully, but then jazz is often amplified, especially vocalists. On the previous night, Benedict Mason explained in his post-concert talk that the entire ensemble was amplified (for ChaplinOperas), and even without this clarification one could sense the greater acoustic punch, compared with the unamplified Ligeti and Rihm here. But this observation is subject to further investigation, and there was no doubt that artistically these were two of the most involving concerts of the season, demonstrating the cool expertise of one of the world’s great collections of musicians, devoted to some of the most difficult music on the planet. The clincher was the passionate ear and incisive hand of Mr. Nott, whom I can only hope will return to New York often.

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)