Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Ligeti by Reinbert de Leeuw in New York

From the New York Times:

'The Essence of Ligeti'
Subtle Revenge on Stalin and Other Facets of Ligeti's Art
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI - January 17, 2006

The program notes for "The Essence of Ligeti," the exhilarating concert series of works by the Hungarian modernist master Gyorgy Ligeti, presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, begin by quoting the composer's sobering words on his harrowing youth: "I did not choose the tumults of my life. Rather they were imposed on me by two murderous dictatorships: first by Hitler and the Nazis, and then by Stalin and the Soviet system."

Born in 1923 to a Jewish family, Mr. Ligeti was conscripted into a labor camp during the last phase of the war. In late 1945 he resumed his musical studies at the conservatory in Budapest. But in 1948 composers working in the People's Republic of Hungary were subject to the Stalinist decree banning modern music.

It was an inspired idea for this three-concert festival to begin the first program, on Friday night at Alice Tully Hall, with an example of the kind of pieces Mr. Ligeti was compelled to write in the late 1940's: "Old Hungarian Ballroom Dances" for flute, clarinet and strings. Below the surface of this genial suite of dance tunes, you detect the young composer sticking it to the Soviet cultural police with seemingly ironic touches: sour voicing of chords; excessively filigreed clarinet riffs; sturdy bass lines that turn thumpy.

Mr. Ligeti's experience of dictatorships left him with a lifelong suspicion of dogmas, which, paradoxically, saved him when he traveled to Germany in the 1950's to immerse himself in hotbeds of modernism, especially 12-tone techniques. Though fascinated by the developments he studied, he resisted being part of any camp or espousing any doctrine.

The thrilling results came with works like his Chamber Concerto for 13 Instruments (1969-70), performed on Friday after the dance suite. Here is music by a formidably intellectual composer who also has an arresting capacity for drama and a command of instrumental sonority.
The first movement begins with swirling masses of sound and squiggling lines. Yet the music never becomes some impressionistic haze of intensity. Every moment seems inevitable; every exciting sound seems so precisely rendered that it could not be any other way. In the third movement, a study in perpetual motion and obsessive repetitions, Mr. Ligeti captivates you with his ingenious ability to have multiple, seemingly contradictory things happening at once.
Lusty bravos greeted the dynamic performance of the concerto, brilliantly conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw, who returned to conduct "Mysteries of the Macabre," the supervirtuosic coloratura aria from Mr. Ligeti's audacious opera, "Le Grand Macabre," arranged for chamber orchestra and performed here by the fearless soprano Barbara Hannigan.
The male character she portrayed is Gepopo, the chief of police in the surreal land where this apocalyptic opera takes place. Wearing fishnet tights, spike heels and a leather trench coat, Ms. Hannigan was a demonic presence. But even scarier was her uncanny ability to toss off the hysterical coloratura flights and nonsensical words.
The chamber orchestra follows the singer's tortuous vocal lines almost slavishly, here couching a syllable with a gnashing chord, there providing a countermelody in whining winds, sometimes offering a fleeting moment of repose in a pensive chorale. Ms. Hannigan, Mr. de Leeuw and the players were brought back for five bows by the audience.
The rest of Friday's program won similarly enthusiastic ovations.

On Sunday afternoon, for the second concert in the series, the formidable pianist and Ligeti champion Pierre-Laurent Aimard offered scintillating accounts of four of Mr. Ligeti's visionary piano études. He was then joined by the violinist Mark Steinberg and the horn player Marie Luise Neunecker for a commanding performance of the 1982 Horn Trio. The program ended with the String Quartet No. 1, "Metamorphoses Nocturnes," composed in the early 1950's, when Mr. Ligeti was enthralled with Bartok, and performed here with keen intensity by the excellent Shanghai Quartet.

Mr. Ligeti, who is 82 and not well, is unable to be present for this important series, which ends tonight. For me, he is our greatest living composer.

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