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György LIGETI (b.1923)
The Ligeti Project Vol.4

Hamburg Concerto for Solo Horn and Chamber Orchestra (1998/99,2003)
Double Concerto for Flute, Oboe and Orchestra (1972)
Ramifications for 12 solo strings (1968/69)
Requiem (1963/65)
Marie Luise Neunecker (horn); Heinz Holliger (oboe); Jacques Zoon (flute);
Asko Ensemble; Schoenberg Ensemble;
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; London Voices.
Jonathan Nott (conductor, Requiem)
Reinbert de Leeuw (conductor, rest)
Recordings: Philharmonie, Berlin (Requiem, live Nov. 8-11 2002); Muziekcentrum Vredenburg, Utrecht (rest, Sept.16 2001, Oct. 2-3 2002)
TELDEC CLASSICS 8573-88263-2 [66’01]

This is, we are told, the penultimate release in the Ligeti Project, a series that Teldec took over from Sony. It aims to put on disc all Ligeti’s major works, performed by some of the world’s leading musicians and in state-of-the-art sound, a sort of ‘definitive edition’ for generations to come. This new disc is every bit as good as its predecessors, and follows their enterprising programming, where we get classics from his early career put alongside the very latest from his pen. The resulting juxtaposition is one of the most interesting things about the series.

The work that opens this new record is the Horn Concerto, subtitled The Hamburg Concerto. Though composed in 1998, it was revised as recently as last year. It is a work of great variety and contrast, and shows complete mastery of form and instrumental texture. The piece is laid out in the sort of arch shape so beloved of Bartok, where the seven individual movements have a mirror symmetry – the first and seventh movements correspond, as do two and six and three and five, leaving the fourth as the longest, emotional heart of the work. It opens as we might expect, with ghostly clusters for the featured soloist and the four natural horns that serve as its partners. Ligeti is able to play the timbral qualities of the instruments off against one another, exploiting the dissonance and complex beat patterns that ensue. The following movements show us his interest in dance rhythms (the second is subtitled Signale, Tanz, Choral) and the marvellous Intermezzo that is the fourth movement has the greatest variety of all, displaying Marie Luise Neunecker’s stunning virtuosity into the bargain. The episode at 2’50 shows influence of African polyrhythms, with soloist and orchestra conjuring up a heady mix of birdsong and wild chanting. The closing Hymnus echoes the haunting opening Praeludium, and the whole work is a great example of what a composer in complete command of his musical language can do in a mere 15 minutes.

The remaining items on the disc are all established favourites in the Ligeti canon. Ramifications is nowhere near as daunting as the composer’s rather dry booklet description would lead you to believe. It is a piece where atmosphere is all important, and it reminded me more than once of a neo-Bartókian nachtmusik movement, where the rustlings and flutterings of the night are vividly brought to life by the 12 solo strings. This 8-minute nocturnal soundscape is as resourceful as anything in Ligeti’s output.

The same might be said of the quirkily inventive Double Concerto, which I remember as a highlight of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival a few years ago, when Ligeti was the featured composer and guest of honour. Its two movements form a contrasting duo, marked calm, with tenderness and fast, like a courante. This piece once again exemplifies the composer’s concern with alternations of harmonically dissonant stillness and witty, vivacious dance patterns. The performance is exceptional.

The famous Requiem, put to sensational (if unacknowledged) use by Stanley Kubrick in 2001:A Space Odyssey, is a ‘live’ Berlin performance conducted by our own Ligeti expert Jonathan Nott, who seems to work permanently abroad these days. He coaxes singing and playing of great beauty and phenomenal accuracy. This piece put the composer on the map, and is still the best example of his early sound world. Its cosmic clouds of quarter-tone harmony and almost hysterical choral textures are still difficult to bring off well, and the Terry Edwards-trained London Voices acquit themselves with great aplomb. There are rivals in the catalogue, but you will never hear it performed better than this.

Booklet notes are by the composer, and are certainly authoritative and illuminating, if a little analytical. A special word of praise must go to the recording. The Teldec producers have worked miracles in capturing these difficult textures in such a superb way, a real model of perfectly judged aural engineering. All in all, a highly recommended continuance of this valuable series.

Tony Haywood

Also see: Volume 1; Volume 2; Volume 3

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