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György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Cello Concerto (1966) [16:00]
Chamber Concerto for 13 Instruments (1969-70) [18:24]
Melodien for orchestra (1971) [12:32]
Piano Concerto (1985-88) [23:26]
Christian Poltéra (cello), Joonas Ahonen (piano)
BIT 20 Ensemble/Baldur Brönnimann
rec. April 2014, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway (Piano Concerto); October 2015, Landås Kirke, Bergen, Norway, (Melodien, Cello Concerto); October 2015, Oseana Kunst og kulturscenter, Os, Norway (Chamber Concerto)
BIS BIS-2209 SACD [71:30]

Since first hearing György Ligeti’s stunning orchestral piece San Francisco Polyphony in 1976, I have had a soft spot for this composer. I confess to not having listened to his music systematically, nor having studied his life and works. One cannot hear and understand everything in three score years and ten!

I was a little surprised to receive this disc presenting four concertos (Melodien could be considered as ‘Chamber Concerto No.2’) from a composer usually recalled for his imaginative titles: Lontano, Apparitions, Atmospheres and The Big Turtle Fanfare from the South China Sea. Ligeti is famed for his experimentation with electronic technique, ‘rich dense textures’ and complex rhythmic constructions. My general musical knowledge recalled that Ligeti had written concertos, but they were not on my radar. Besides, a cello concerto seems a little tame for someone with Ligeti’s ‘street cred’. Surely, he was ‘impatient of musical tradition’? The fact is that these four concertos are important and imaginative works that fit seamlessly into the composer’s catalogue.

Musicologists will divide Ligeti’s career into various phases, discuss the progress of the technical devices used and explore the philosophical and political thought underlying these works. I come to this music with an innocent ear: I have read the excellent liner notes by Arnold Whittall and have listened to each piece twice. It is on this basis alone that I can state that I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated Ligeti’s music on this new CD from BIS. Michael Oliver once wondered (Tempo September 1994) if “we have been listening to the same work[s] or [have our heads] been buried in the score.” György Ligeti needs to be listened to: not just pontificated on.

Ligeti’s Cello Concerto was written in 1966. The liner notes suggest that it is the “most radical (avant-garde?) of his five contributions to the genre.” The underlying principle of this work seems to be the avoidance of a ‘classical’ opposition between soloist and orchestra. In fact, the performance requires a huge degree of virtuosity from the orchestral players, not just the soloist. A reviewer in The Gramophone made it clear that one of the reasons why this work remains less popular than Ligeti’s four other concertos is that it does not attract “star soloists”.
There is a strategic imbalance between movements. The work evolves as an extended, sinuous exploration of a variety of textures. The first grows from a single long note on the cello which gradually “draws the other instruments into the …web of sound.” The second movement is virtuosic, with complex musical patterns and textures. The liner notes suggest that the brass make “exasperated outbursts as if in frustration at the soloist’s failure to sustain the expected virtuosity.” After a final scintillating outburst, a cello cadenza returns the music to the rapt silence encountered in the opening bars. I could never put this work into my ‘top ten’ cello concertos, but after a couple of hearings, I came to enjoy and appreciate it.

The Chamber Concerto for 13 Instruments (five strings, four woodwinds, two brass and three keyboard - so actually 14!) was composed between 1969-70 for the Viennese ensemble Die Reihe.

Arnold Whittall points out that this work differs dramatically from the Cello Concerto in that “all the players (including the cellist) are unmistakably present, all essential to the design and character of the whole.” Ligeti himself has declared that this is a concerto in as much as the soloists are required to be virtuosic soloists and are treated as musical equals. There are four movements in this work. The first is polyphonic and makes use of Ligeti’s “micropolyphonically interwoven lines”. The term suggests a texture made up of multiple melodies presented in canon (‘catch’ or ‘round’) but moving at different tempos or rhythms. The second movement is homophonic: the use of chords allows for a sense of stasis in the music. This is quite beautiful. Then follow clockwork sounds which are truly mechanical and sometimes comical in effect: this was inspired by the composer’s Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes! The final movement is well-described by Ligeti as an “insanely virtuosic presto”. All in all, this is an enjoyable and satisfying piece.

Melodien (1971) has been designated “a microcosm of Ligetian practice” (Gramophone May 2001). The structural principle of the work is that of “three superimposed planes – a foreground consisting of melodies and shorter melodic phrases, a middle ground of ostinato-like figurations and a background of long sustained tones. The composer uses these planes to develop the music by allowing them to converge and diverge”. I think that is all the listener need understand about Melodien. It is a great work, and forms a splendid approach to Ligeti’s music.

The precursor of the Piano Concerto (1985-88) was a series of 18 Studies for solo piano. These occupied the composer for fifteen years, not being completed until 2001. This in turn had been inspired by a set of 51 Studies for piano player by the American experimental composer Conlon Nancarrow. The earliest drafts for Ligeti’s Concerto date from 1980. Yet, it was his engagement with his 18 Studies that allowed progress to be made on the concerto.

The work was expanded between 1985 and 1988, first to three movements and then to five. It was first heard in its entirety in 1988. The Concerto was written for the American conductor Mario di Bonaventura.

The musical influences are diverse: “Liszt, Stravinsky and Shostakovich, Conlon Nancarrow and Oscar Peterson, African polyphony, folk music of South-eastern Europe, dances like the Caribbean salsa and Brazilian samba…” Several unusual instruments are heard in this score, including the slide whistle and the ocarina. But all this is synthesised into a unified work: the listener is not conscious of seams. The main constructive principle is an “alteration between the flowing and the fragmentary, continuity and disconnuity.” (Richard Steinitz).

There are several learned studies of this Concerto in the musical press. It would be easy to be submerged by this multifaceted score (the composer felt that it was his “most complex and least transparent to the ear”. On the other hand, I guess that it is good just to listen, enjoy and not worry too much about how György Ligeti achieved this splendid, eclectic work.

Despite this work being ‘modern’ in sound and scope, I believe that Arnold Whittall is correct in suggesting that “the twin deities of Hungarian piano music…Liszt and Bartok…would have both surely relished the refinement, flamboyance, and questing musical substance from which this remarkable concerto is built.”

As noted above, I listened to all four pieces with an innocent ear: I am unable to compare this music to other recordings. I know that there are numerous other editions of these four works on CD: I have not consciously heard any of them. Yet, I am convinced that the playing by soloists and ensemble is superb on this present disc. The sound recording is ideal too. For me, all these pieces have impressed me and have encouraged me to investigate Ligeti’s music in greater detail.

John France



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