Mysteries of the Macabre (arr. Elgar Howarth)
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Peter Masseurs (trumpet)
Reinbert de Leeuw
Recorded September 2000, Stichting Muziekcentrum van de Omroep, Hilversum
San Francisco Polyphony
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded 13-16 December 2001, Philharmonie, Berlin
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: August 2002
CD No: See above
Duration: See above
The much-promoted and widely lauded Sony Ligeti Edition has fizzled out about halfway through, and so all credit to Teldec for taking up the project.
These first two volumes provide an interesting overview of Ligeti’s orchestral output, starting with an early work – Concert românesc, with folk-like reminiscences of Bartók – to what he terms his “western” pieces for large orchestra in which the composer sets out on a “quest for new, unique and extreme solutions”. Ligeti has always seemed to me to be composer who has consistently explored sonority, texture and timbre in his music, with some very fascinating and unique-sounding results.
In Volume I, Melodien is almost a contradiction in terms, as there is nothing especially melodic about it. Instead, swirling high woodwinds at the start give an almost impressionistic effect, with calmer moments providing effective contrast. The Chamber Concerto is an altogether darker affair, with some startling instrumental sounds – col legno strings, for instance – contributing to a brooding and, at times, menacing atmosphere that brings to mind some of the earlier works of Penderecki.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard has recorded the Piano Concerto before under Boulez (DG) and is once again a vivid and committed soloist. This work is in complete contrast to the Chamber Concerto, which precedes it on the disc, being rather Stravinskian in its rhythmic vitality and spring. Indeed, it might not be too fanciful to coin the term ’neo-Stravinsky’ to describe this and some of Ligeti’s other recent works. If I marginally prefer the Boulez-led performance, this is due in part to the warmer sound and more relaxed approach. Aimard and de Leeuw take an altogether leaner and grittier view – one that is just as valid.
Mysteries of the Macabre is an arrangement by Elgar Howarth of three arias from Ligeti’s grotesque opera Le Grand Macabre. The virtuosic trumpet writing is played with panache by Peter Masseurs, whilst the bizarre instrumental accompaniment makes its full impact.
Volume II contains music for full orchestra and is the disc I would recommend to anyone wishing to explore Ligeti’s music for the first time. Atmosphères was perhaps one of the first works by Ligeti to become more generally known through its use (along with excerpts from other Ligeti pieces) in Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001 A Space Odyssey”. One can hear why Kubrick chose this to depict other-worldly scenes, as it has a decidedly eerie and unsettling effect, largely through the use of microtones and densely clustered notes – a characteristic it shares with Lontano.
The composer describes both these works as “static pieces”, and yet the haunting mood both create is quite mesmerising.The Berlin Philharmonic play with impressive concentration and accuracy – especially given the fact that both pieces were recorded live, as were performances under Abbado with the Vienna Philharmonic (DG again) which are rather more closely balanced and which leave a more disturbing impression.
Apparitions is anything but static – indeed its violent, suddenoutbursts contrasted with high sustained notes or chords brings Stockhausen’s Gruppen to mind, a point acknowledged by Ligeti in his booklet notes.
San Francisco Polyphony suggests the bustle and activity of a city, though it is not without its moments of loneliness and reflection (a poignant violin solo) and this seems to be a work in which the composer is reconciling – or synthesising – the disparate styles he has adopted throughout his career.
The final piece on this disc – Concert românesc (Romanian Concerto) – is also the earliest (1951) and is unlike any of the other music on either volume. Folk-influenced and derived, it is a thoroughly enjoyable distillation of the composer’s native land.
Jonathan Nott draws committed performances from what must have been completely alien territory for the Berlin Philharmonic, and the sound is warm and full. Ligeti provides his own informative programme notes, though some pieces are given short shrift. These two discs are an excellent start to the series and Volume II provides an ideal introduction to the music of this intriguing and often unpredictable composer.