Self Portrait with Reich and Riley (and Chopin in the Background)
Chamber Concerto
Aventures; Nouvelles Aventures

John Constable & Shelagh Sutherland (pianos)

Barbara Hannigan (soprano), Mary King (mezzo-soprano) & Omar Ebrahim (baritone)

London Sinfonietta
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Tristan Jakob-Hoff

Reviewed: 19 May, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

“Utter rubbish”, was my partner’s verdict at the end of this performance of György Ligeti’s “Aventures” and “Nouvelles Aventures”. “Sixties performance art at its worst”, she harrumphed. I suppose that any piece featuring a trio of singers who scream, groan, whisper, hyperventilate, mime frantically and make peculiar noises through cardboard rolls is kind of opening itself up to such criticisms. The maniacal percussionist whose job it is to whack cushions, beat rugs, tear up bits of newspaper and throw crockery around probably doesn’t help matters much either.

Still, I must beg to differ. Written between 1962 and 1965 for three singers and a seven-piece ensemble, “Aventures” and its sequel marked a fairly comprehensive departure from Ligeti’s earlier style, typified by the haunting, kaleidoscopic textures of Atmosphères, written only a year earlier in 1961. But the vein of absurdist humour first introduced in “Aventures” was one which the composer would mine again – notably in his 1977 opera “Le Grand Macabre” – and as such is as crucial to understanding his psyche as more solemn vocal offerings like “Lux Aeterna” or the celebrated “Requiem”.

More to the point, “Aventures” and “Nouvelles Aventures” are almost unique in the canon of classical music in that they are genuinely, riotously funny. Though not quite performance-art in the strictest sense – Ligeti assiduously notated every nonsensical stream of phonemes – they are nonetheless hugely theatrical works, requiring the three singers to convey a vast range of emotions through physical means as well as vocal. In this performance, the vocal trio fought, cajoled, aggravated, flattered and occasionally flirted with one another, not to mention the orchestra: at one point, Ebrahim cried out and pointed gravely at the harpsichordist, who responded with a timid, even apologetic chord. Their sense of comic timing was superb – all three have been performing the piece together for years – but there was room for the odd moment of poignancy too: a series of weary sighs and impotent groans from Mary King at the end of “Aventures”, for instance, spoke rather eloquently of loss and frustration.

Martyn Brabbins conducted with a well-judged mixture of precision and humour – I particularly liked the way he made a point of beating time during the percussionist’s paper-tearing ‘solo’ – and the Sinfonietta was typically excellent. The musicians’ collective talents were on further display in the first part of the concert, which included Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto and the two-piano Self Portrait with Reich and Riley (and Chopin in the Background). The former is full of the subtly shifting textures and indiscernibly intricate patterns for which Ligeti is best known, but its finest moments are borrowed from earlier pieces, meaning it does not stand out as a major opus: the colourful ‘Movimento preciso e meccanico’, for instance, simply recycles the irregular twanging of the Second String Quartet’s pizzicato movement.

Self Portrait – played exceedingly well by John Constable and Shelagh Sutherland – was a more fascinating proposition: each pianist is required to play a series of rapid scales with their right hands, whilst blocking most of the notes with their left hands, preventing all but one or two of those notes from sounding. This resulted in some weirdly irregular rhythms, the gaps between sounding-notes gradually becoming filled-in as more and more keys were released. The effect, when shared between the two pianos, was positively hypnotic.

With Steve Reich already in the picture, so to speak, the concert organisers chose to fill out the programme with the latter’s Sextet, necessitating an interval on either side wherein mallet instruments, pianos and synthesisers were set up and removed. It is an attractive piece, to be sure, and the six soloists gave it a riveting performance – but in the context of the doggedly European sensibilities on display elsewhere, Reich’s bold textures, jazzy harmonies and repetitive rhythms merely came across as brash and simplistic, lacking the ingenuity and detail that characterise Ligeti’s music. As a counterpoint to the evening’s star composer, it served its purpose pretty effectively – but not really for the right reasons.

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