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Seen and Heard Concert Review

 


 

Ligeti, Knussen, Goehr: Pierre-Laurent Aimard, (piano), Claire Booth (soprano), London Sinfonietta. George Benjamin (conductor)  Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 13.03.2007 (AO)

 


Ligeti: Ramifications,  Melodien


Knussen: Requiem – Songs for Sue


Goehr:  Behold the Sun


Ligeti: Piano Concerto

 

 

This concert felt like a family gathering, since numerous composers and musicians were in the audience, their relationships extensive and long abiding.  As in all good family gatherings, those who’d passed on, lived on in memory. It was in this very hall that George Benjamin first met György Ligeti, decades ago. Although the programme was dedicated to Ligeti, others were being honoured too, notably Olivier Messiaen, who so championed his work.  Benjamin and Pierre-Laurent Aimard have unusually unique insights into both composers, so this concert was truly a special occasion, musically and personally, for many of those present.

 

Benjamin quotes Ligeti as telling him “I have no confidence in myself….I’m basically doing all I do in a most amateur way, just trying to realise something that I imagine in my ear, in dreams.  I use techniques, of course, but I forget them after writing and have no overall scheme or permanent procedures.  People of my generation believed that music could be explained and structured in a pseudo-mathematical way, but I never believed that”.  Benjamin adds that he finds it “hard to imagine a more endearing credo for an artist, in this or any other era”. 

 

Perhaps that openness to poetical, intuitive impressions is a way into Ligeti’s work.  To paraphrase Mahler, there’s more to music than “just the notes”.  Ramifications expands the composer’s interest in nets of sound tissue, braided together, and then gradually loosened, the form branching out and forming “off-shoots” and further fusions.  The music seems to oscillate rather than move processionally, the development occurring in barely perceptible microtonal adjustments to what seems a single thread of sound. Half of the strings are tuned a quarter-tone higher than usual, to expand the range.  It adds an eerie, shrill pitch which beautifully offsets the sonority of the double bass which scrapes along, often at its lowest possible register. Benjamin has an amazing ability to keep each of the twelve strings separate, yet carefully intertwined. Every gradation of nuance counted, even silence, whose role in music is so often misunderstood.  One moment we were hearing sounds pitched so high that the human ear can barely perceive.  The next we were listening to absolute silence, shaped by echoes of what we had taken in. 

 

Melodien, from 1971, is of course more conventionally “melodic” in that snatches of melody seem to break through and float without obvious development, combining into a complex texture of sounds.  Ligeti describes these quasi-melodies as “creepers” covering the surface with their exploratory tendrils.  Melody seemed to burst out of this “net” of modulated sound like something organic, without overwhelming, kudzu-like.  The melodies played on in the imagination, allowing the ear to focus on the many other textures. Again, there was impressive playing from the orchestra – the flute and clarinets floating extremely long legato lines that seemed to curl in circular loops.  This contrasted with ostinato-like tappings and knockings, the strings morphing into percussion instruments.  Simple, dramatic strokes, like a single key being struck on piano, acted as punctuation marks, underlining more elaborate passages such as the lovely violin solo melody that rises near the end. 

 

Another person being remembered was Sue Knussen, for whom several tributes have been written, including one by Mark-Anthony Turnage.  Oliver Knussen’s Requiem – Songs for Sue is perhaps the best known, for obvious reasons, and also because it’s been performed several times in the last few months.  It’s surprisingly text-based for contemporary music, which is a good thing, given that words are so often relegated to mere elements of sound in much new music.  This I think, will be the making of this piece and ensure its lasting place in the repertoire.  Claire Booth is of course the piece’s leading exponent.  Her singing flows naturally and freely: her interpretation has deepened as she’s grown into the music. Word-painting means so much in this piece that it eclipses the understated orchestral commentary.  I’m not quite sure how to express this, but the poems as a group seem to express a distinct personality, beyond the texts, while the orchestra seems to be listening. Indeed, there was an almost Ligeti-like stillness in the orchestration, the unadorned vocal line subtly enhanced by hollow, metallic and otherworldly sounds which express a sense of desolation.

 

The opening line, “Is it true, dear Sue” is followed by silence, as if an answer were expected, but doesn’t come.  It’s poignant without being maudlin.  The poem, by Emily Dickinson, is full of corny lines like “as quiet as the Dew – she dropt as softly as a star”, but Knussen shapes the vocal line with dignity.  Surprisingly, there is some emotional distance in this piece which I can’t quite pinpoint either, but which adds a moving elegance to the whole, layering it with a veil of Sehnsucht which makes it universal as well as first-person. It’s particularly strong in the third song, ‘Time will say nothing but I told you so,’ to a fine text by W H Auden.   Booth lowers the timbre of her voice, creating a direct sense of intimacy.   The line “”because I love you more than I can say” is spoken, not sung.  A musician can’t “say” without music, so this is Knussen’s own, authentic voice speaking, expressed through the medium of his soprano.

 

Alexander Goehr chose the Rilke text for Knussen’s fourth song, which ends with the uplifting “da du so hingingst für alles offen, wie ein Tag, der anbricht” (as you went forth, open for everything, like a day, which dawns”).  Again, Goehr is part of the “family gathering” that shaped this programme, for he, too, connects with so many in so many ways.   His Behold the Sun, was written nearly 25 years ago, and probably chosen as it fitted the programme well at this point.  Booth is put through a gamut of vocal challenges, having to sound shrieks, trills, and while swoops up and down the scale.  It’s like an aria for a coloratura on amphetamines.  As a technical challenge, it drew huge applause.

 

The core of the programme however, was undoubtedly Ligeti’s Piano Concerto. In this, the composer contrasts different rhythmic patterns to create a sort of energy which when properly played he says “will lift off like an aeroplane, the rhythmic event transformed into a hovering”.  Of course he doesn’t mean this literally.  But if you think like a musician, or a poet, the metaphor makes sense, for the music propels itself, vibrating with dynamic patterns and counter patterns. Indeed, as Ligeti himself also said, he was experimenting with perceptual illusions, with “music as frozen time, as an imaginary space, evoked by our conception of it……..the capturing of time, the elevation of its passing, locking it up down to the very last moment”. 

 

The first section is lively and direct, to be played ritmico e precisio.  Aimard delivers, flying to the extreme right hand keys, pounding out a dark, hollow ostinato, then pulls back sharply and launches into an almost jazz-like flourish, the heavy beat taken up by castanets and wooden bells.  The woodwinds and strings play a counterintuitive rhythm.  Like the aural equivalent of Magic Eye, the music really starts to leap off from what you consciously hear, and to “fly” as Ligeti suggested.  Benjamin, Aimard and the Sinfonietta were evidently “playing properly” as they could achieve this uncanny effect.   I’d hate to hear this played by a substandard budget band.  It needs to be played wit real understanding of its dynamics, and with spectacular virtuosity, or it would collapse into mush. 

 

Later, there’s a passage of unbelievable stillness, the variations in sound almost too imperceptible to be differentiated.  Enno Senft held his bow almost motionlessly over the strings, yet produced sounds of exquisite complexity, over a surprisingly long period.  It was a tour de force, technically and artistically.  It was as like watching a hummingbird, hovering in one spot, its wings fluttering so silently that you can’t see them.  The clarinets take up the line, then Aimatrd returns his hands this time stretched right across the keyboard, striking notes in progression.  The interplay now is between piano and brass, Aimard getting some amazing low, deliberately hollow sounding notes.  The trumpet fanfare is underlined by metallic percussion, creating an interesting contrast in textures. As before, Ligeti can’t suppress snatches of melody.  There’s a passage for solo violin, exquisitely played by Laurent Quenelle, and then a one for the clarinet, before the thrusting rhythmic undercurrents return.  Aimard plays a  spectacular passage where notes flicker off rapidly in exuberant flurries.  Again, as the music decelerated, silence again became a feature.  The image of the orchestra, stopped mid-bow, and conductor, his arm held mid-air, and Aimard “frozen in time”, will remain with me for years. 

 

 

 

Anne Ozorio

 

 

 

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Contributors: Contributors: Marc Bridle, Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling,  Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, John Leeman, Sue Loder,Jean Martin, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas,Alex Verney-Elliott,Raymond J Walker, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)