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The trumpet shall sound

10/18/2003 -  

György Ligeti: Romanian Concerto, Piano Concerto, Hamburg Concerto, Violin Concerto

George Benjamin (conductor), Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Michael Thompson (horn), Isabelle Faust (violin)

London Sinfonietta


György Ligeti: Le Grand Macabre

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

Alexander Rumpf (conductor), Justin Way (director)

BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers

György Ligeti is undeniably one of the great composers of the second half of the twentieth century, and one of a very small handful of acknowledged great living composers. But the main appeal of the Barbican's eightieth birthday celebration lies in the fact that he is also one of the most entertaining composers of the century, and always seems to hit the spot for audiences. Born in Transylvania, trained in composition in the school of Bartók and Kodály in Budapest and transplanted to Germany in 1956, Ligeti has long known how to be an alien while teaching the native something about themselves. The outrageous, psychotic comic-strip opera Le Grand Macabre may have been the obvious draw in the weekend's program, but the previous evening's survey of Ligeti's concertos by the London Sinfonietta was impressively well-attended, with the Barbican Hall almost full apart from the (smallish, closed) balcony.

Three of the four works on the programme have been heard live in London in the past few years, the Hamburg concerto in its penultimate form, and all three offer insights into their solo instruments as well as emotional challenges and good, weird fun. All three got bravura performances from their soloists. The piano concerto, comparatively straightforward formally and rich with rhythmic polyphony, was almost a romp in the able hands of Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the Sinfonietta's percussionists. The Hamburg Concerto (for horn) and the violin concerto were more "difficult": the horn concerto explored the conflicting tunings of natural horns (four in the ensemble as well as one played by the soloist), evoking Sunday morning music practice as well as the abstract potential sound of the physical instruments. A succession of short forms proved tough to keep track of, but the diversity of form and effect was always engaging, and Michael Thompson exuded cool throughout in the solo part. The violin concerto returned to more conventional-looking polyphony but also used natural tuning that added an edge of anxiety or perhaps nostalgia to a series of movements most of which seems to increase in intensity before a sudden halt. Isabelle Faust played with controlled passion as well as amazing skill.

Perhaps the main attraction was the UK premiere of Ligeti's Romanian Concerto from 1951. Apparently written as a conformist, socialist-realist homage to the pure peasantry in the darkest days of Communism, it was nevertheless censored for its harmonic adventurousness. To today's ears it sounds more like Vaughan Williams than Bartók, although it is undoubtedly a great, humorous romp and the ending is a very rude parody of the rhetoric of town bands and German symphony orchestras alike.

Le Grand Macabre has almost entered the core repertoire, but hasn't been seen in London since the production at the ENO in 1982. (Peter Sellars' Salzburg production was scratched from Covent Garden at the last minute in 1998.) Completed in 1979, it is very much of its time, combining the gothic, luscious romance and druggy humour in both its themes and its music. There is no real plot -- death comes to Breughelland, but everybody is dead already, or nobody dies at all, and two lovers in an empty tomb fuck through the end of the world. The lovers' music is richly resonant of Monteverdi, then miraculously newly discovered, and fragments of almost everything else imaginable flit wittily through the comic-book score.

This performance was worth seeing for the singers. Willard W. White was magnificent as Nekrotzar, the eponymous macabre guy, a kind of metaphysical Darth Vader. Graham Clark was very funny as Piet the Pot, the ubiquitous drunken onlooker, Dario Suss suitably bemused as the astronomer Astramadors, Hilary Summers hilarious and scary as his dominatrix wife Mescalina, and David Walker wonderfully screwy as the infantile Prince Go-Go. Hanne Fischer and Johanette Zomer were luscious as the lovers, and Caroline Stein delivered the coloratura of Venus and the Chief of Secret Police with superhuman skill. The rest of the cast was uniformly entertaining, although low-level amplification made the overall sound more alienating than it needed to be and the minimal staging was disappointing, highlighting the absence of the required effects.

Alexander Rumpf, stepping in at a late stage, led the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a nifty performance, often wry rather than manic, though with some fine filthy trumpets of doom, and always cracking fun.

HE Elsom



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