Ensemble Intercontemporain in New York

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
Jagden und Formen

Michael Wendeberg (piano)

Ensemble Intercontemporain
Jonathan Nott

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 25 May, 2005
Venue: Rose Theater, Lincoln Center, New York City

This exciting concert was the second of two at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater by Jonathan Nott and the Ensemble Intercontemporain. The first offered Benedict Mason’s “ChaplinOperas”. This second program featured soloist Michael Wendeberg in György Ligeti’s Piano Concerto, as well as the U.S. premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s explosive, virtuosic Jagden und Formen.

Ligeti composed his Piano Concerto in two working periods: the first three movements in 1985-86, the last two in 1987-88. After hearing two performances of the work in its initial three-movement state, Ligeti felt the third, rapid movement, Vivace cantabile, was not an appropriate conclusion, so he expanded the piece to its final, five-movement form. The rhythmically and textually thorny piano concerto is one of Ligeti’s most popular pieces, and it is easy to understand why. Ligeti adopts the traditional rhetoric of the piano concerto, but twists it around. The piano proposes a wellspring of ideas and gestures, and the orchestra picks them apart. Boundless in its inventiveness, with multiple layers of rhythmic and harmonic complexity, the work has moments suggestive of Debussy, Bartók, Kurt Weill and Dave Brubeck. But the music, filled with brilliant textures and constantly shifting patterns, is never anything less than Ligeti’s own. Michael Wendeberg brilliantly tackled its rhythmic complexity with an impressive combination of agility and aplomb, and the small ensemble responded vividly to Nott’s vigorous but clear and pointed directions.

Rihm’s magnificent Jagden und Formen (Hunting and Forms, 1995-2001) is an exhilarating 50-minute rush of musical ideas. Conceived in a single, unbroken movement, the work has gone through several revisions. There have been premieres of three different versions. The first was heard in 1999, the second at the Huddersfield Festival in 2000, and the third version was performed by the Ensemble Modern in Basle in November 2001, and subsequently recorded in 2002. The starting point for all of these was a series of three compositions from the mid- and late-1990s, all for small orchestra: Gejagte Form (Hunted Form), Verborgene Formen (Hidden Forms), and Gedrängte Form (Harried Form). Rihm uses material from all three compositions in Jagden und Formen, with Gejagte Form serving as the principle source of ideas and processes.

Anyone hearing Jagden und Formen for the first time will be struck by how everything seems to grow organically out of the motivic material presented by two ruminating violins in the opening bars. The rest of the ensemble is gradually introduced, with woodwinds and brass dominating, though the harp, guitar, piano, and even a string quintet also play important roles. The pace of the work is frantic, with musical ideas seeming to tumble over one another in a headlong rush of shifting instrumentation and harmonic changes. The polyphonic complexity is extraordinary, and the instrumental writing extremely challenging, but in this performance, under Jonathan Nott, the Ensemble Intercontemporain did it great justice, performing with remarkable precision, sustained virtuosity and weight.

Overall, this was an utterly fascinating concert of faultless intonation and rhythmic persuasiveness, featuring some of the most original sounds in contemporary music.

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