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György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Six Bagatelles (1953) [11:39]
Chamber Concerto for thirteen instrumentalists (1970) [18:23]
Ten Pieces for Wind Quintet (1968) [13:59]
Marion Ralincourt (flute); Hélène Mourot (oboe); Christian Laborie (clarinet); Michaël Rolland (bassoon); Pierre Rougerie (horn); Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
rec. live la Chapelle du Méjan, Arles, and la Cité de la Musique, Soissons, France, 12-14 April 2016

It might be easy to dismiss this disc out of hand with its short timing and with available recordings of all of this music, but that would be a mistake. From their earlier recorded repertoire, one expects Les Siècles to play period instruments. Perhaps that is what we get here, though there is no mention of any differences between the instruments used in this music, the earliest of which was composed in 1953, and what we hear in ensembles today. There is one difference, though, as listed in the CD booklet regarding the instrumentation of the Chamber Concerto. Among the woodwinds the work is scored for flute, oboe and two clarinets, one of which employs a bass clarinet in three of the four movements. The booklet lists no bass clarinet, but a bassoon instead. I think this is an editing error. When I listen to the actual recording and compare it with two other accounts, it sounds like a bass clarinet to me. Of course, the bassoon has a major role to play in the other works on the disc.

The actual performances themselves display a high level of proficiency and no little character, and the recorded sound is superb. The chief competitor in the popular Six Bagatelles is the London Winds, who recorded the piece twice—as part of Sony’s Ligeti Edition and more recently for Chandos. I reviewed the latter with a great deal of enthusiasm here. I find I have enjoyed this account by Les Siècles nearly as much. To generalize, the French group sounds a bit mellower and lighter than the British one, with a particularly outstanding bassoon. On the other hand, I prefer the hornist in the London Winds, if only by a small margin. Both groups bring out the humour of the music very well. The sound on the Chandos recording is in the demonstration class, as is that on this new disc.

The Ten Pieces is a much tougher nut to crack, but the wind quintet of Les Siècles clearly has the measure of these pieces and is in every way equal to the account by the London Winds in the Sony edition. Both groups display the necessary virtuosity to do full justice to this music, while a particular instrumentalist might be preferred by listeners in one or the other performance. The London Winds, as recorded, are given a brighter sound and the French group a warmer and slightly deeper sound. Ligeti composed the work in 1968, the same year as his Second String Quartet. That quartet is in five movements and here he doubled the number, thus “ten pieces”. Ingeniously, the odd numbered movements act as a “ripieno” to the even numbered “concertino” movements, where each instrument gets its turn to demonstrate its virtuosity. Thus the second movement features the clarinet; the fourth, the flute; the sixth, the oboe; the eighth, the horn; and the last, the bassoon, whereas in the odd-numbered movements the whole ensemble receives equal exposure. The Ten Pieces is typical of Ligeti’s music of the 1960s and 1970s in its use of dissonance and rhythmic complexity.

The 1970 Chamber Concerto is one of Ligeti’s signal compositions from the same period. It has been lucky in recordings, none more so than that from which I became acquainted with the work: the Ensemble Modern conducted by Peter Eötvös on Sony. The concerto also received a sterling performance by the Schönberg Ensemble under Reinbert de Leeuw in Vol. 1 of Teldec’s Ligeti Project that succeeded the uncompleted Sony edition. What I took away in comparing these accounts, including the new one by Les Siècles under François-Xavier Roth, was the sheer excellence of the performances. Each has its strengths, and there are no weaknesses I could detect. If I continue to prefer Ensemble Modern’s version, it is because it has been recorded a bit more distantly and one can appreciate the overall effect of the music without being right “inside” the instruments. Eötvös also gives a passage towards the end of the second movement an almost romantic touch that is quite beautiful, where the same passage in the other accounts can pass by without as much notice. On the other hand, there is no gainsaying the closer recording of the other versions where every detail is heard supremely well. For example in the third movement, marked Movimento preciso e meccanico, the Schönberg Ensemble and Les Siècles are startling in their producing the percussive effects of the strings, high winds, and keyboards. In the Ensemble Modern’s account, especially, when the trombone enters followed by the high winds, it reminded me more of a chorus of frogs—the bass of the bullfrog followed by the piercing treble of spring peepers! No other performance I have heard has had quite that effect on me.

In addition to listening to the Chamber Concerto, there are real advantages in having the opportunity to see it performed. A number of versions on YouTube are out there, as well as one by the Scharoun Ensemble conducted by Matthias Pintscher from 16 June 2016 on the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall website that is terrific from a performance standpoint. Equally fine and with better camera work, which allows one to see up-close all that is happening in the concerto, is the performance on YouTube by the Ensemble Intercontemporain under Tito Ceccherini from 4 May 2015. I recommend either to get a full appreciation of the work.

Returning to the disc at hand, I can easily recommend it for the particular combination of pieces in excellent performances. However, one must note the paltry timing of the CD, which could have easily included such works as the Horn Concerto and the Double Concerto for flute and oboe.

Leslie Wright



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