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Worlds of Delirium

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
12/19/2010 -  
Jean-Philippe Rameau: Suite from “Les Boréades”
György Ligeti: Violin Concerto –Mysteries of the Macabre
Richard Strauss: Metamorphosen: A Study for 23 Strings

Christian Tetzlaff (Violin), Barbara Hannigan (Soprano)
Ensemble ACJW, Sir Simon Rattle (Conductor)

Sir S. Rattle (© EMI Classics)

Sir Simon Rattle was literally kicked off the stage last night. The deviant kicker was a drunken crack-addeled woman with a fright wig and absurdly high-heels. She booted Sir Simon in the derrière, and insanely kidnapped the whole ACJW Ensemble, simultaneously screaming nonsense at her players and trying to conduct herself.

Then again, maybe Sir Simon deserved such treatment. After all, in the preceding piece he had been serenaded by no less than four ocarinas!! What serious conductor would permit such noises?

I don’t know the answer. But I know composer György Ligeti, would have loved it.

And when Barbara Hannigan is the soprano, and the screams erupt from the above-high-C non-stop cadenzas of Le Grand Macabre, and the whole thing is the farce of geniuses...that is good enough for an extraordinary Sunday evening.

Simon Rattle was taking time off from the Metropolitan Opera, where he made his triumphal debut with Pelléas et Mélisande, and he did it with passion. The ACJW may be young, but they are technically bold. The stage may not even have room for a dais, and Sir Simon, batonless and happy, may have looked like he was conducting a group of amateurs. But oh!! What unearthly music erupted from this group.

At first, the four works should have been an unlikely combination: Rameau, Ligeti and Richard Strauss. But the Rameau suite from an opera he wrote at the age of 80 (you thought only Verdi could do that trick?) was conducted with rambunctious skill.

Since Rameau never had a metronome, perhaps Sir Simon was taking license with the tempos. Hearing a clarinet in major parts, one would have thought this was an anachronistic re-orchestration. But the clarinet had just been invented, the tempos were probably right, and the whole suite had an uproarious atmosphere that one would never have expected from the Baroque composer.

Next came two pieces by Ligeti. The late Hungarian composer wanted to make his Violin Concerto a true virtuosic work. But his role models, Szymanowski and Paganini, were serious composers. Ligeti, ever the gnome, the trouble-maker, created a work which seems literally impossible to play. Not only does it involve the most taxing cadenza ever written, but it involves microtones (both violin and viola have to retune a few times), harmonics, and pure dazzlement.

Yes, here were four ocarinas (played by the wind players), at first acerbic, sarcastic, later even sanctimonious. And when Christian Tetzlaff played that cadenza, the soloist himself imitating all four ocarina parts on his fiddle, this most important work by Ligeti turned into a romp.

Mr. Tetzlaff didn’t handle the work: he created a world of planetary. My problem is that I have a recording of the piece, and can never hear it again. Such sounds must be live. And he made them come alive.

Back to Barbara Hannigan. The fright-wig, the heels, the drunken, doddering, the undressing were noting compared to her machine-gun delivery, her mad, astounding, adventures in a spectrum which only a dog could hear! This was–without any critical comment–one of the great experiences of music.

Finally, the most controversial work. Yes, Sir Simon, in leading the Berlin Philharmonic, has had the experience and the string section to make Strauss’s Metamorphosen be as vibrant as its tightly-knit 23 solo strings would allow. At the same time, after those three circus pieces, hearing the Strauss was like starting on a buffet of truffles, oysters, mushrooms, shrimp, the lightest souffles and wines and finishing with a huge mutton stew.

This is unfair to Strauss, the ACJW and Sir Simon Rattle. But the Strauss was a downer. As if the conductor was saying, “Everything you heard beforehand was a delirious illusion. So get over it.”

He wouldn’t have even thought that. But had I left after Ms. Hannigan, I would have still today be experiencing György Ligeti’s euphorically happy hallucinations.

Harry Rolnick



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