London Sinfonietta – Ligeti, Knussen & Goehr

Requiem – Songs for Sue [London premiere]
Behold the Sun
Piano Concerto

Claire Booth (soprano)

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

London Sinfonietta
George Benjamin

Reviewed by: Tristan Jakob-Hoff

Reviewed: 13 March, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

London has been crying out for a concert in memory of György Ligeti since the great Hungarian composer passed away last year in June. As one of the few avant-garde composers of the 1960s and 1970s to reach beyond the ghettos of new-music and embed himself firmly in the popular consciousness, it’s a little surprising that a full-on retrospective has yet to be mounted. We are therefore once again indebted to the London Sinfonietta, who, along with George Benjamin, are celebrating the composer’s works in two concerts this Spring.Ligeti is one of the select few composers whose music can be easily divided into several distinctive periods, and this concert usefully featured a piece to represent each of his styles. Ramifications (1968-9) best represents the ‘classic’ Ligeti soundworld, mostly because it dates from the same era as the pieces famously plundered by Stanley Kubrick for inclusion on the soundtrack of “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Scored for two small string orchestras, sitting side-by-side and tuned a quarter-tone apart, Ramifications sounds a little like a string quartet that has been slowed down and pulled apart until its inner workings – at the physical, acoustical level – can be perceived. Rarely rising above pianissimo, the piece is a series of tiny, intermingling pulses – minimalism before its time – that through George Benjamin’s lucid, detailed conducting, was nonetheless ripe with tension.

Though completed just two years later, Melodien for chamber orchestra represents quite a stylistic departure. As the name would suggest, this work’s central thesis is melody. What Ligeti does is give his ever-imaginative textures some melodic contour; thus, the dozens of softly rising chromatic scales that begin the piece ultimately congregate around an oboe tune that sings sweetly for a few seconds before transitioning into another texture. In its colourful orchestration, its occasionally dark undertones, and its skewed reimagining of the past, Melodien is like the musical equivalent of a Brothers Grimm fairytale, expertly narrated by Benjamin and the London Sinfonietta.

The Piano Concerto, which came at the end of the evening, was arguably the most significant work on the programme, a piece that cost Ligeti years of toil – he eventually delivered it ten years after it was commissioned. This time, it is neither texture nor melody that Ligeti focuses on, but rhythm. Written in the same breath of inspiration as the first book of (piano) Etudes (1985), the first movement’s toccata-like solo part – with its strategically-placed accents causing a mellifluence of contradictory rhythms – owes as much to the influence of African Pygmy drumming patterns as it does to the fractal geometry of Ligeti’s friend Benoît Mandelbrot. The third and fifth movements run along similar lines, using rhythmic groupings of variable length to create a sense of unease without for a moment letting up the tension. Pierre-Laurent Aimard – the work’s greatest proponent – was the soloist; he executed the extraordinarily difficult piano part without any visible indication of effort, nor a hint of showiness. Despite his superhuman dexterity, however, it was the relatively simple slow movements – the second and fourth – that were most haunting: the second movement in particular, with its low piccolo moans and high bassoon cries, sounded like yet another fairytale, an unnerving stroll through a forest haunted by the ghosts of Bartók’s ‘night music’.

Also featured were a pair of British works with soprano Claire Booth. Of these, it was Oliver Knussen’s affecting “Requiem” (2005-6) that left the greater impression. Subtitled ‘Songs for Sue’ after Knussen’s late wife, who died of a blood infection in 2003, the piece spotlighted a selection of carefully selected poems (in three languages) whose cumulative impact was deeply touching. Booth was a marvellous choice as soloist, her voice ranging from sweetness to bitter regret without ever slipping into sentimentality; Knussen’s music was likewise very heartfelt – sad, but obviously loving. A direct quotation from Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” at the end of the first song – on the word ‘forevermore’ – summed things up pretty nicely.

Next to the sensitive textures of Ligeti and Knussen, Alexander Goehr’s “Behold the Sun” (1982) sounded blunt and exasperating. Arguably, this was the point – the piece represents a boy caught up in religious fervour and shouting to the world about the glory of God. But the sound of poor Claire Booth exclaiming for a quarter of an hour at the very top of her range about “shame and stink and endless pain” was about as appealing as Goehr’s shrill and unimaginative orchestral writing. All performers did their best, but this is not a work I will be in a hurry to hear again.

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