Ligeti at 80

18 October, Barbican Hall

Romanian Concerto [UK premiere]
Piano Concerto
Hamburg Concerto
Violin Concerto

Michael Thompson (horn)
Isabelle Faust (violin)
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

London Sinfonietta
George Benjamin

19 October, Barbican Hall

Le Grand Macabre [sung in English]

Piet the Pot – Graham Clark
Amando – Hanne Fischer
Amanda – Johannette Zomer
Nekrotzar – Willard W. White
Astradamors – Dario Suss
Mescalina – Hilary Summers
Venus/Gepopo Chief – Caroline Stein
Prince Go-Go – David Walker
Ruffiack – Edward Price
Schobiack – Mark Griffiths
Schabernack – Adrian Peacock
White Minister – Steven Cole
Black Minister – Frans Fiselier

BBC Singers

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Alexander Rumpf


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 19 October, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The 80th-birthday year of one of the undeniable living ’greats’ might be expected to see some degree of commemoration. Although this was not the comprehensive retrospective as mounted on the South Bank in 1989 and 1997-8, the Barbican’s “Ligeti at 80” weekend surveyed a range of music and activities Ligetian. The two evening concerts were well chosen to illustrate his achievement in both the abstract and dramatic domains – not that, in Ligeti’s instance, the two are by any means mutually exclusive.

Certainly the Romanian Concerto (1951) operates at the edge of Stalinist musical dictates. It is also a compendium of inter-war practice: Kodály in the sombre Andantino and evocative Adagietto, Bartók in the athletic scherzo, and Enescu in the exhilarating finale – with its elaborately ’decorated’ violin part and play on horn tunings which uncannily anticipates the Hamburg Concerto half a century later. George Benjamin coaxed an attentive response from the Sinfonietta, though Jonathan Nott and the Bamberg Symphony brought even greater abandon to the slapstick of the finale when heard as an encore at an Edinburgh Festival concert earlier this year.

It is a tribute to the sheer inventiveness of the piece that the much later Piano Concerto sounded almost too well behaved in comparison. Perhaps through overt familiarity, Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s playing felt too calculated – notably in the opening movement’s freewheeling polyrhythmic interplay and fractured energy of the fourth movement. Yet the Lento¹s folk inflections were fervently expressive – and, with accurate yet never clinical ensemble, the overall impression was of a work more unsettling than when it first appeared – a sure sign of interpretative flexibility and durability.

The title Hamburg Concerto is revealing – as this work, composed during 1998-9 and revised two years later, is not a ’horn concerto’ so much as a chamber concerto with the soloist first among equals alongside an ensemble of soloists, including four obbligato natural horns. Add to the equation the overtone possibilities within the ensemble, and the result is sonic diversity new even to Ligeti’s output. Abandoning the symmetrical poise of the earlier concertos, the quodlibet-like sequence of brief movements suggests differing expressive facets drawn within a fluid, though unified, overall design. No bad thing, then, that Michael Thompson’s rendition focussed on security rather than fantasy – while not pre-empting the strangeness of the Hymnus, which now concludes the piece in a state of heightened inconclusivety.

Although this may well remain Ligeti’s final major work, it made sense – programme-wise – to end with the Violin Concerto. In just a decade, this has established itself as a modern classic, combining Ligeti’s love of polyrhythms and varied tunings with a heady recall of his Bartókian heritage. Isabelle Faust brought an aching nostalgia to the Aria-Hoquetus-Choral second movement. She had seemed emotionally a trifle reticent in the Praeludium, but the fine-spun agility of the Intermezzo and powerfully wrought intensity of the Passacaglia were perfectly judged. Her cadenza – based on that by Christian Tetzlaff – for the finale, however, rather undermined the momentum built up earlier in the movement, robbing the closing ensemble bars of their barbed humour.

Though it bestrides the midpoint of his mature output, and can hardly claim to be a comprehensive resumé of his career, Le Grand Macabre forms a suitable climax to any Ligeti retrospective. His largest, aesthetically most all-encompassing statement, its surreal anarchy masks searching questions about life and living that are no nearer even a tentative solution in the complacent 2000s than they were in the more openly crisis-ridden 1970s. Perhaps being among the most staged of post-war operas has inevitably made it among the most misinterpreted? At any rate, Justin Way’s semi-staged performance – replete with images taken from original costume and set designs for a 1979 staging in Bologna – made sense both as a dramatic and musical embodiment of Ligeti’s all too imaginable ’Breughel-land’.

Moreover, the casting could barely have been improved upon. Graham Clark (looking startlingly like the Ligeti of 20 years ago) was in his element as the irascible yet undeniably sympathetic ’common man’ Piet the Pot, making the most of some wacky interplay with Willard White’s knowingly pompous sorcerer Astradamors. They were deftly complemented by the sexual androgyny of Hanne Fischer’s Amando and Johannette Zomer’s Amanda. David Walker’s appealingly fallible Prince Go-Go, and Caroline Stein’s resourceful Venus and Gepopo Chief (the latter’s coloratura aria was virtuosically yet musically dispatched) were the pick of a strong supporting cast.

Standing in at short notice for Michael Boder, Alexander Rumpf impressed with his undemonstrative handling of Ligeti’s often restrained but intricate orchestration, while the BBC Singers sounded in their collective element as they veered from ’Greek Chorus’ to mob to glee chorus during the course of the opera.

A heartening near-capacity house was there to experience and enjoy the performance. Indeed, if ever an opera should be required listening for those in positions of authority, Le Grand Macabre is it. But then, Ligeti’s music as a whole needs to be heard more widely: a near-perfect amalgamation of heart and brain, and a triumph of communicative expression over restrictions without and within.

  • Concerts broadcast on BBC Radio 3 – Sinfonietta on 29 October, Le Grand Macabre on 30 October, both at 7.30

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