Bamberg Symphony in New York

Symphony No.10 – Adagio
Etudes for Solo Piano:
No.7: Galamb borong
No.8: Fém
No.9: Arc-en-ciel
No.10: Der Zauberlehrling
No.11: En suspens
No.12: L’escalier du diable
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

Bamberg Symphony Orchestra
Jonathan Nott

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 8 May, 2005
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

Its official name is the Stiftung Bamberger Symphoniker-Bayerischen Staatsphilharmonie, but I shall take the liberty of describing this past weekend’s visitors to Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall as the Bamberg Symphony. The orchestra – founded in 1946 by musicians who went to Bamberg from Prague, Karlsbad, and Schlesein as refugees from World War II – has been under the directorship of the British-born conductor Jonathan Nott since January 2000. The orchestra’s programs at Lincoln Center, on 6 & 8 May, marked the U.S. debut of Nott, who is also the chief guest conductor of the Paris-based Ensemble Intercontemporain.

The diverse program for 8 May, like that for the 6th, included works by Ligeti, Mahler and Beethoven, but the focus of attention was on Ligeti. The concert opened with the wondrous Atmosphères (1961), famous for its use as the ‘overture’ of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey”. A program note quotes Ligeti as saying “the piece contains absolutely no rhythmic or melodic motif”. But this is no haphazardly grouped collection of sonorities. The layers and clusters of constantly changing textures reveal a strong inner coherence. And there are some strikingly dramatic passages, including one in which the music rises to the orchestra’s uppermost register, and re-emerges deep in its bass range. Nott led the Bamberg players in a performance that brought great clarity to the music, revealing the wealth of subtle details that Ligeti packed into the ten-minute score.

Nott’s attention to detail was equally evident in the performance of the Mahler Adagio, the only completed movement from what was to be the composer’s Tenth Symphony. Nott and his Orchestra players emphasized the searching qualities in the music: the individual tonal language, the wide leaps and the yearning melodies.

Following the intermission, the French pianist and champion of new music Pierre-Laurent Aimard played six of Ligeti’s path-breaking Études for Solo Piano. Like the études of Chopin and Debussy, these pieces are more than mere technical studies; they are also virtuosic statements in the composer’s own musical idiom. Composed in the late 1980s, nearly three decades after Atmosphères, the pieces are filled with rhythmic complexity and melodic motifs. In addition to the études of Chopin and Debussy, Ligeti cites a wide variety of influences – traditional African music, the player-piano studies of Conlon Nancarrow, and the jazz piano music of Thelonius Monk and Bill Evans. But the music of these études is Ligeti’s own: intense, diverse, joyful and inventive. And it is impossible to imagine a more authoritative or masterful reading than that given by Aimard, Ligeti’s pianist of choice, the one to whom he has dedicated a number of these works. Aimard displayed incredible virtuosity and a brilliant sensibility for this extraordinary music. Whether it was the agitated rhythms he produced in ‘Fém’, the translucent lyricism he displayed in ‘Arc-en-ciel’, or the diabolic intensity he unleashed in ‘L’escalier du diable’, his performance was a revelation.

After Aimard’s astonishing performance of the Ligeti pieces, the Bamberg Symphony returned to accompany him in an ardent and highly coherent performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto.

For an encore, Nott led the orchestra in a lively and entertaining reading of the rambunctious final movement of Ligeti’s Concert Românesc (1951), a reminder of Ligeti’s formative years in Hungary when he was under the influence of Bartók, though the horn solo that ends the movement points in the direction of Ligeti’s later work.

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