O-Mega Simon Holt
Lilith Gyorgy Ligeti
Síppal, Dobbal, Nádihegedüvel(London premiere)
Hamburg Concerto (UK premiere) Regis Campo
Violin Concerto (UK premiere) George Benjamin
Angel Gimeno (violin)
David Hockings (percussion)
Katalin Karolyi (mezzo soprano)
Paul Silverthorne & Genevieve Strosser (violas)
Michael Thompson (horn)
London Sinfonietta conducted by George Benjamin
Sunday, February 11, 2001 Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Ligeti has not been so prolific over the past two decades that we can expect new works on a regular basis, so to have two UK premieres in the same concert was a rare event, especially as they contrasted strongly in concept and content.
The concert, conducted and presumably devised by George Benjamin, opened (following a tribute to Xenakis who died on 4 February) with Simon Holts Lilith - in essence a miniature clarinet concerto, with a dramatic impact all the greater for its compression, though an inward touch was provided by the richer sonorities drawn from a trio of violin, viola and cello. If Régis Campos Violin Concerto appeared formally diffuse in comparison, the 32-year-old French composer made an effective play on the Baroque concerto; the soloist alternately provoking and merging into the ensemble, whose range of post-Boulezian harmonies and rhythmic routines appealed up to a point. In place of an indisposed Clio Gould, Venezuelan-born Angel Gimeno played with conviction a work he premiered in 1997; someone the Sinfonietta should invite back. Benjamins own Viola, viola received an airing in the able hands of Paul Silverthorne and Genevieve Strosser. For all the complexity of part-writing between the two violists, this is relatively clear-cut in form, with a particularly atmospheric central cantabile section, and a pizzicato coda that elegantly pares down the works material. One to set beside Upon Silence and the Three Inventions as representing Benjamins harmonic and rhythmic thinking at its most lucid.
Of the Ligeti works, Síppal, Dobbal, Nádihegedüvel came across as a latter-day Aventures, with all the wit and brevity of the Nonsense Madrigals. Each of the seven miniatures distilled the essence from a Sándor Weöres poem, heightening its impact rather opening up its expression. A playful iconoclasm was evident in the opening Fable and Coolie settings, contrasting with the suitably hieratic Chinese Temple and the almost populist Bitter-sweet. Katalin Károlyi was the effortlessly charismatic soloist, while Ligetis percussion writing has seldom been more resourceful. No wonder the closing Magpie setting was encored: this is a cycle of which we will hear much more.
Ligetis Horn Concerto, featuring the excellent Michael Thompson, was a very different and more perplexing proposition. Abandoning the five-movement arch form of the piano and violin concertos, the work is structured in six brief movements of barely 15 minutes duration; moreover, the second, third and fourth movements are themselves multi-sectioned, though continuity is such as to make divisions hard to distinguish. Perhaps the Telemann-like subtitle, Hamburgisches Konzert, points to a divertimento or baroque-overture derivation. Praeludium opened up a harmonic space typical of late Ligeti, intensifed in the penultimate Spectra by the complex interaction of just- and even-tempered resonance, before the closing Capriccio dispersed the aura in a hunting horn finale with a difference. Questions remain, notably whether the soloists switching between natural and valved horns was entirely necessitated by the music, and whether the ensembles quartet of natural horns and duo of basset horns activated the harmonic framework to the extent intended.
But then, Ligeti wouldnt be Ligeti if his music didnt keep you guessing. Compared to the late Xenakis - the wearily-resigned O-Mega was his last work Ligetis capacity for renewal and for keeping ahead of his listeners thankfully show no signs of diminishing.