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RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Cello Concerto (1966) [16:00]
Chamber Concerto for 13 instruments (1969-70) [18:24]
Melodien (1971) [12:32]
Piano Concerto (1985-88) [23:26]
BIT20 Ensemble/Baldur Brönnimann
Christian Poltéra (cello)
Joonas Ahonen (piano)
rec. April 2014, Grieghallen, Bergen (Piano Concerto), October 2015, Landĺs Kirke, Bergen (Melodien, Cello Concerto), October 2015, Oseana Kunst- og kultursenter, Os, Norway. BIS BIS-2209 SACD [71:30]
If like me you've grown up with the music of György Ligeti, then re-immersing yourself in his music after a time apart is as much like putting on a much-loved old coat as can be a re-acquaintance with something by Bach or Mozart. Ligeti's distinctive avant-garde voice of the 1960s and ’70s involves textures of sound, fields of tonality that evolve and resolve with elegant slowness, tensions that rise to dramatic breaking point and are resolved through gesture or cadence - keen arrows of human emotional experience that pierce your consciousness with pangs of recognition, even if at first you're not quite sure why.
This is certainly the case with the Cello Concerto, which is almost an anti-concerto in the way it confounds conventional solo/accompaniment boundaries. As the booklet notes point out, there is a mutual dependency between the two – soloist and orchestra, though this is at times barely audible. The cello is often like the invisible bacteria in our bodies - significant and influential, indeed essential, but elusive and spectral. The energetic arguments of the penultimate minutes push towards some kind of resolution in this symbiotic relationship but, like conjoined twins, the duality remains equal in darkness or light.
The Chamber Concerto for 13 instruments inhabits a more extended, intense world in Ligeti's line between space and action. There is an intimacy in hearing his tonal and textural exploration in this chamber-music context, but with the instruments powerful both individually and in their collective unity this is a piece with a symphonic weight of content, especially in its Beethovenian four-movement design. Hearing this again after some time, I am struck in fact at how Mahlerian this work is, with the impact of its outbursts, the 'nocturnal' feel of its second movement, its expressive melodic shapes and sense of theatrical drama. The machine-like drive of the third movement has to be a kind of Scherzo, and the spectacularly virtuoso final Presto is 'essence of Ligeti' with the dial turned to 11 - an ode to joy or a tarantella dance of death.
Melodien is almost a sister piece to the Chamber Concerto and, while performed here with full orchestra, can also be played with 16 musicians. Ligeti's own description of this music uses the term 'planes', in which different types of material form a kind of aerial perspective, from foreground melodies to sustained notes in the distance. There is a romantic richness in much of this score which almost transcends modernity, though Ligeti's personal touches are always in evidence, if less laid bare than in the Chamber Concerto. Orchestral sonorities have something to do with this of course, but over its single movement span Melodien seems to be holding a place at the starting blocks rather than catapulting us into new territories.
Much later than the previous works, Ligeti's Piano Concerto inhabits more the world of his remarkable piano Studies - indeed, the first of these studies provides the launching point for the whole concerto. The high-rev bouncing rhythms of the first movement contrast sharply with the Lento e deserto stillness of the second. Arnold Whittall's booklet notes refer to Richard Steinitz's suggestion that the Piano Concerto presents "an alternation between the flowing and the fragmentary, continuity and discontinuity." I would also add surrealism and surprise to this neat summary.
There are several notable recordings of these works around. There's the Teldec 'Ligeti Project' recording of the Cello Concerto (review) which is excellent, but has more detail than atmosphere and places the cello closer than in this BIS balance, creating a more 'concerto' like relationship where Christian Poltéra's solo is more integrated into the whole. The Deutsche Grammophon recordings with Pierre Boulez and the Ensemble Intercontemporain of both the Cello Concerto and Piano Concerto are also superb in their way, though in both cases the BIS recording has a subtlety and lightness of touch which wins for instance over pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard's touch, which now seems rather relentless. The Deutsche Grammophon 4-CD set Clear or Cloudy is certainly worth exploring, though this BIS release shows how a greater poetry has been allowed to enter today's interpretations of these works.
With the advantage of beautiful SACD recording, this BIS programme of some of György Ligeti's best instrumental music had me hearing new things and refreshing my views on some old ones. The BIT20 Ensemble's virtuosity and skill has an aura of miraculous perfection, and the recording has a perfect balance between detail and distance that allows both analytical listening and those blends of timbre that are so essential to Ligeti's scores. This is an essential purchase for both newcomers and connoisseurs.