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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

György LIGETI (b.1923)
The Ligeti Project Vol.2

Lontano (1967) [11’35]
Atmosphères (1961) [8’51]
Apparitions (1958-59) [12’21]
San Francisco Polyphony (1973-74) [12’21]
Romanian Concerto (1951) [12’50]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Jonathan Nott
Rec. Philharmonie, Berlin, 13-16 December 2001, DDD
TELDEC CLASSICS 8573-88261-2 [54’34]


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This release represents Volume 2 of the new Teldec Ligeti Project. It could well prove to be the most popular, containing as it does some of Ligeti’s most famous pieces, as well as a couple of important premiere recordings.

Leaving aside the Romanian Concerto (one of those premiere recordings, a product of his early post-war years in Bucharest), the disc is made up of what the composer calls his "… four western pieces for large orchestra … the works that best illustrated my quest for new, unique and extreme solutions". It is probably best to start with the two pieces purloined by Stanley Kubrick for 2001, A Space Odyssey, as this film was largely responsible for getting Ligeti’s sound-world to a larger public. Lontano and Atmosphères are both given performances of the utmost virtuosity by the Berlin Philharmonic, and it is interesting to compare them with the only serious competition, a benchmark 1994 disc from Abbado and the VPO entitled ‘Wien Modern’, and featuring these two works along with pieces by Nono, Rihm and Boulez. Where Abbado (not unsurprisingly) goes for lean, clear textures, with individual lines clearly audible through the ‘clouds’ of sound, Jonathan Nott revels in the sheer weight of tone at his disposal, producing a sound that is truly thrilling in its sumptuousness. These works exemplify Ligeti’s move towards ‘texture’ music, where clusters of adjacent sounds are used to achieve slow, seamless change, and the massed strings of the Berlin orchestra, particularly in Atmosphères, produce the kind of preternatural glow that the composer must surely have had in his mind when conceiving the piece. Abbado is a good tonic to this performance, but there is no question as to which one I will return for an amazing aural experience, helped by a recording of spectacular dynamic range.

It is astonishing to realise that the piece that effectively launched Ligeti, Apparitions, is here receiving its first recording. The scandalous premiere took place in Cologne in 1960 under one of the composer’s early champions, Ernest Bour, who made a number of pioneering Ligeti recordings for Wergo. The piece seemed to be resigned to textbook references, so it is a cause for celebration that we are now able to judge it properly in Jonathan Nott’s superb performance. The work is in two short sections, each giving a tantalising glimpse of Ligeti’s early experiments with ‘micropolyphony’. The deep, low bass opening is full of the sort of foreboding that bears out his famous quote – "I am permanently scarred; I will be overcome by revenge fantasies to the end of my days". This outlook was formed by his experience of two dictatorships, Hitler and Stalin, and the restless second movement, which provides an effective contrast to the uneasy stillness of the first, shows a composer struggling to make his uniquely original voice be heard.

The teeming figurations that characterise San Francisco Polyphony show us the same composer fully in command of his genius. The piece comes from nearly two decades after Apparitions but is recognisably the work of the same hand and brain. Here we get more ‘clocks’ than ‘clouds’, and the bustling nature of a large, cosmopolitan American city (the inspiration for many other composers) is evoked with this composer’s unmistakable touches. It would be interesting to know what the members of the Berlin Phil. made of the piece, for there is no doubting their commitment in what must have been less-than-familiar music to them.

The last work is hardly mentioned even in textbooks. The Romanian Concerto is a product of Ligeti’s early experiments in the transcribing of folk material from wax cylinders and sounds as if it could have been written by Bartók or Kodaly. Despite this, or maybe because of it, it is a piece of great interest, especially given the path that Ligeti eventually took. Ligeti displays his debt to Bartók even in his mature music (particularly the Piano Concerto and Etudes), and it is particularly affecting to hear the young composer thoroughly mastering his great predecessor’s mix of folk song and rhythmic vitality – the last movement’s Molto vivace could be straight out of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. This immaturity does, of course, mean it is unlikely to be heard in the concert hall, and is therefore all the more valuable on disc, especially in a performance as infectious as this. Is it possible the Berliners were revelling in being able to play some ‘straight’ music at last, I wonder?

The notes, as ever in this series, are by the composer and as authoritative as one can get. The recordings, two of which are ‘live’ (though you can hardly guess) are wonderfully detailed and vivid, real demonstration stuff. Whether you are a Ligeti fan or not, I heartily recommend this – it’s worth it for the rare items and the sonic experience alone!
Tony Haywood


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