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Ligeti : Danny Driver (piano), Andrew Stephen (actor), Netia Jones (direction/video design), Nat Urazmetova (video assistant). Hall Two, Kings Place, London, 28.2.2011 (MB)

1 and 2 (1947)

Invention (1948)

Musica ricercata (1951-3)

This was a wonderful concert! As if the promise of a complete performance of Ligeti's Musica ricercata were not enough, we had, as has often been the case with Transition_Projects events at Kings Place, a bonus, this time in the place of some even earlier Ligeti piano pieces. One entered Hall Two to see a man, played by the excellent Andrew Stephen, seated nearly motionless at a typewriter, and his projection on the screen behind. Crackling radio-like noises evoked a post-war environment, suggestive of the world in which Ligeti came of age, and more specifically suggestive of his father, in the words of Netia Jones's helpful note, 'a highly intellectual and cultivated man constantly surrounded by science and research books, who would spend days clattering away on a typewriter'. Such matters remained an abiding interest for Györgi Ligeti; this concert provided a relatively rare opportunity to experience his musical life at the beginning: not as a documentary, but as a fascinating and enjoyable imaginary encounter. Ricercata as research, then, as well as musical form…

The previously advertised Ryan Wigglesworth had at some point been replaced with Danny Driver, who proved a sure guide in our fifty-minute tour. The notes were not merely played, but connected: always a crucial thing, but of particular relevance given the additive plan of Musica ricercata, on which more in a moment. First, however, we heard the bonus pieces: not mere bonuses, of course, but characterful in their own right and enlightening background to the main course. First, a title screen was typed - and screened. Dictionary and technical definitions of words such as 'contrapuntal' and so forth appeared on screen thereafter, Ligeti's autodidacticism brought to the fore. We also saw Driver's hands at one point. Bartók's influence was keenly felt, especially in the second Capriccio: sometimes, at least, a dangerous thing in post-war Hungary, as Ligeti would already have known.

Musica ricercata
is a set of eleven pieces, unperformed until 1969, in which each piece has one more pitch class than its predecessor. Thus, the first is restricted to A, with D introduced at the end; the second, E sharp, F sharp, and G, and so on. Bartók is still an audible presence, but Ligeti's own ricercata is the guiding principle. In Jones's words, 'his voracious intellect … [led] to research in many different directions, from his favourite books, What is Mathematics? (Richard Courant & Herbert Robbins) and A la recherche du temps perdu (Marcel Proust) to early compositional techniques and methods. An open-ended research that could last a lifetime … [and] a foretaste of the exhilarating invention that was to come.'

Jones's projections and Stephen's stage action genuinely added to the sense of research and invention. The man's pacing, increasing to running, seemed to liberate our aural imaginations during the first piece, not to restrict them; there was no suggestion that this was what the music was 'about', but it worked. Process music this may be, in some sense, but there are different processes at work, so visual processes must vary too. Moreover, it is certainly not merely process music; it is full of character and wit, once more aided and abetted by the visuals. Not that one should forget the musical performance that lay at the evening's heart: Driver's clearly insistent alternation between E flat and E natural during the jaunty third piece had its own, 'musical' tale to tell. Before the fourth piece began, we even heard an organ-grinder, again through radio crackling, setting up nicely the waltz music to come, even providing an intriguing setting for Ligeti's exploration of piano harmonics. The ninth piece is explicitly dedicated to Bartók's memory; however, its low-sounding bells proved equally evocative of two other composers: Schoenberg's reminiscence of Mahler's funeral in the last of the op.19 Six Little Piano Pieces. Accompanying this - again, wisely not attempting to translate it into pictures - was a striking image of a man holding a pocket-sized version of himself in his hands, and squashing it. Surrealism would soon be a valued addition to Ligeti's universe; perhaps it was already. Another aural connection evoked through Driver's performance was the kinship - intentional? I do not know - between the tenth piece and the finale of Prokofiev's Seventh Piano Sonata. (Interestingly, Alexander Goehr dedicated his contemporaneous, 1952, Piano Sonata, op.2, to Prokofiev's memory.) Finally came the Omaggio a Girolamo Frescobaldi, in which necessarily full chromaticism came delightfully into play with contrapuntal designs and research: musica ricercata in the fullest sense, not just the work, but its performance and presentation too.

Mark Berry

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