Aureole etc.

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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

György LIGETI (b.1923)
The Ligeti Project Vol.1

Melodien (1971) [13’04]
Chamber Concerto (1969-70) [18’24]
Piano Concerto (1985-88) [23’30]
Mysteries of the Macabre (1974-77; 1991) [7’57]
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano); Peter Masseurs (trumpet)
Schoenberg Ensemble (Melodien, Chamber Concerto)
Asko Ensemble (Piano Concerto, Mysteries)
Reinbert de Leeuw (conductor)
Rec. Stichting Muziekcentrum van de Omroep, Hilversum, September 2000 DDD
TELDEC CLASSICS 8573-83953 2 [64’05]


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To those of us who care deeply about music written since World War 2, the demise of Sony’s Complete Ligeti Edition was something of a body blow. Luckily, Teldec have stepped in, re-named it The Ligeti Project, and more or less taken up where Sony left off. As much of the chamber, vocal and solo piano works had already been well served on Sony’s seven volumes, Teldec have concentrated so far on orchestral and concerto (or concertante) pieces. This does mean a possible risk of duplication for the keen collector, but each of the new discs not only gives us superbly authoritative versions of the familiar fare, but ‘spices’ things up by adding a number of world premiere recordings.

One such item is the very first on the disc, Melodien, dating from 1971 and written for fairly large chamber orchestra. The composer tells us that the title refers to "the particular nature of the instrumental writing, in which individual voices are markedly melodic in style". It is in a single movement, and Ligeti refers rather poetically (but aptly) to "contrasting kinetic elements … flowing along like a river, each of whose meanderings differs considerably from the next one". The experienced composer-conductor, Reinbert de Leeuw obviously understands this shifting structure well, as he beautifully teases out individual lines without losing sight of the whole. There is a permanent state of tension within what Ligeti calls a ‘soft’ harmonic context, and these suspensions are rarely released. A climactic point is reached (roughly at the half way point) and a gradual subsiding, though not really any comfortable resolution.

The Chamber Concerto comes from immediately before Melodien, and is one of Ligeti’s most popular works. It has had a number of recordings, the best of which is Boulez on a cheap, desirable DG Classikon issue (coupled with Schnittke and Lutosławski). The work is extremely resourceful and is scored for thirteen instruments, the same number as Berg’s Chamber Concerto, though a different combination (Ligeti scores his for five strings, four woodwinds, two brass and two keyboard players). Again, Ligeti is less concerned with an alternation of tutti and solo, and more concerned with exploiting individual soloistic timbres within a concertante framework. The opening movement is mostly textural, built up of "micropolyphonically interwoven lines that are constantly overlapping and merging". The second is more static (though no less effective) and the third exemplifies his obsession with a rhythmic structure built around ‘clockwork devices’ (not dissimilar to his 1962 Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes). The cat-and-mouse finale, described by the composer as ‘an insanely virtuosic Presto’, is superbly played by the Dutch ensemble, who are clearly revelling in the daunting challenges Ligeti has set them.

The Piano Concerto may well, for many, be the main item on the disc. It was written for the Bonaventura brothers, Anthony and Mario, but has found its truest champion recently in the phenomenal Pierre-Laurent Aimard. His Sony disc of the taxing Etudes for Piano won a clutch of awards (rightly so), and this is his second recording of the Concerto, his first being with Boulez on a very desirable DG disc which also features the Cello and Violin Concertos. This new recording is just as fine, indeed possibly even better in its assured execution of some very complicated material. The opening movement, for instance, shows how Aimard is easily able to overcome the rhythmic hurdles and make Ligeti’s phase-like structure (not unlike American minimalism) sound spontaneous and unforced, even dance-like. Indeed, this piece is closely linked with the first volume of Etudes, and was part of Ligeti’s avowed intention of "turning towards more distinct and transparent crystalline musical structures". He sees this compositional process as being analogous to the relationship between pixels and images on a television screen – the pixels light up and disappear in rapid succession, without moving, but the illusion of movement is created and the surface ‘lives’. The Piano Concerto fully exploits this idea of ‘graininess’, and enthusiasts who know his 1968 piece for harpsichord, Continuum, will know what to expect. These rhythmic patterns are largely inspired by his African studies, and the instrumentation around the piano also backs this up, with the accent on exotic percussion and a pulsating forward momentum. Anyone expecting a nasty, dissonant mess need not worry – the results here are an infectious, even intoxicating cocktail that Aimard describes, not unreasonably, as "the finest of all contemporary piano concertos, a combination of perfect control and sheer madness".

The final short, encore-style item, Mysteries of the Macabre, is also a premiere recording, though it may be familiar to keen enthusiasts. It is an arrangement of three arias sung by the Chief of the Secret Police in the opera Le Grand Macabre. It is a variant of the same arrangement for coloratura soprano, and was re-scored for trumpet and chamber orchestra by another Ligeti champion, Elgar Howarth. The grotesque humour and sheer bizarreness of the original come over well, and the use of solo trumpet adds another dimension, giving the whole entertainment a tenuous but audible link back to Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale.

The whole disc is a success. There is competition in the bigger items, though the present performances are easily as authoritative as any, being fully supervised by the composer, who also provides illuminating liner notes. The recordings, as so often with this company, are demonstration worthy, and one can only conclude with a vote of thanks to Teldec for taking up the mantle of this important series.

Tony Haywood

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