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Lux aeterna 6220676
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Lux Aeterna
György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Lux Aeterna (1966) [9:11]
Éjszaka (Night) (1955) 2:21]
Reggel (Morning) (1955) [1:15]
Mátraszentimrei Dalok (Songs of Mátraszentimre) (1955) [5:28]
Drei Phantasien nach Friedrich Hölderlin (1982) [12:56]
Zoltán KODÁLY (1882-1967)
Esti Dal (Evening Song) (1938) [3:01]
Este (Evening) (1904) [4:55]
Mátrai képek (Matra Pictures) (1931) [11:03]
Danish National Vocal Ensemble/Marcus Creed
rec. 7-8 January 2020 and 9-10 September 2021, DR Studio 2, Copenhagen, Denmark
OUR RECORDINGS 6.220676 SACD [50:30]

György Ligeti accepted an out-of-court settlement for the use (and abuse) of his music in Stanley Kubrick’s celebrated 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. This did not, however, prevent him from authorising the director to use his works again in later films. Kubrick makes striking use of the unaccompanied work with which this collection opens, Lux Aeterna. Ligeti describes the work as having ‘a polyphonic texture so thickly woven that the individual voices become indistinguishable, and only the resulting harmonies, blending seamlessly into one another, can be clearly perceived.’ The work calls for 16 voices: the DR Vokal Ensemble as listed in the booklet comprises 18 singers. The London Sinfonietta Voices (‘György Ligeti: Works’, Sony  88697616412) are clearly more numerous, which helps achieve the seamless effect the composer required, but the Danish performance is so secure, and at the same time so timeless, that many will find it even more convincing. Much the same can be said of the clusters in the first, and the extreme virtuosity in the second – not to mention the animal noises – of the two earlier pieces that follow, richer in sound in the London performances, clearer in Copenhagen.

Mátraszentimrei Dalok is a set of folk song arrangements originally written for children’s voices, though the subject matter of the songs is not particularly appropriate for children. Sung with great gusto and virtuosity, they are utterly delightful, a phrase I think few listeners would apply to the Hölderlin settings that follow. Indeed, one might think them the work of a different composer, because here we encounter Ligeti at his most radical and experimental. I have not seen a score of the work, and so can only comment on what I hear, but I have rarely heard singing of such mastery in so challenging a repertoire. The booklet notes suggest that whereas there is no melodic content at all in Lux Aeterna, there is indeed in the Hölderlin settings. Ligeti’s own description invokes ‘half chromatic, half diatonic harmonies’. The middle song, ‘Wenn aus der Ferne’ (‘If from afar’) is a fine example of the rewards to be garnered from Ligeti’s music when approached with an open mind. You will listen in vain for any kind of tonal centre, but submit yourself to it and the song, that deals with lovers separated one from the other, is profoundly atmospheric and alive to the subject matter. Even with no access to the texts I think most listeners would have an idea of the kind of message being conveyed. And what an extraordinarily fecund aural imagination Ligeti possessed! The first and third songs are harder nuts to crack, the musical material, shall we say, extreme. The notes state that the first song ‘reaches the limit of what it is possible for a vocal ensemble to carry out’. This extraordinary choir seems to attain that limit.

The programme is completed by three works by Kodály. The first, Esti Dal, coming immediately after the Hölderlin settings, seems like music from another world. Kodaly was profoundly influenced by the traditional music of his homeland, and all these works have their roots there. In Esti Dal, one the best-known of Kodály’s short choral works, a stranger in a foreign land is preparing to sleep under the stars, and prays to God that he will survive the night. The sopranos sing a folk melody over held chords from the other voices, simple means that achieve a powerfully evocative effect. Similar techniques are used to similar ends in the earlier Este, but with richer harmonies. Matra Pictures is a set of five free arrangements of folk songs from the Matra region of northern Hungary, one that, as we have seen, also captured Ligeti’s imagination. Here we encounter, amongst other themes, a notorious local bandit and, in the final song, a village wedding celebration. I have conducted Kodály’s music with French-speaking amateur choirs and can confirm that the Hungarian language is challenging! In this performance, the rapidity of the words does not seem to trouble these Danish speakers in the least. Curiously, chickens feature in this song, and you need the text in order to know quite why. Alas, the booklet provides no translations from the original Hungarian or German. For those you need to visit the OUR Recordings website.

Earlier encounters with the Danish National Vocal Ensemble have included a fine collection of choral music by Poulenc (review) and an outstanding coupling of Frank Martin’s sublime double choir Mass with music by Martinů (review). Listeners attracted by the repertoire must not overlook these discs. They are now joined by this magnificent collection, where most of the works are arrangements of or are derived from Hungarian traditional music, with the Hölderlin settings the single exception. As a programme I am not quite sure that it holds together, but each work is deeply satisfying in its own right, and the performances are truly sensational. With only 50 minutes of music, however, one might have hoped for rather more opportunity to hear this truly remarkable choir.

William Hedley

Previous review: Philip R Buttall

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