MUSIC / Alien sounds: David Fanning on Ligeti at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival

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The Independent Culture
After Gorecki - nationalist devout - this year's Huddersfield Festival focused on Ligeti - cosmopolitan blasphemer. Now 70, Ligeti has long moved on from the otherworldly 'micropolyphony' that Stanley Kubrick commandeered for the soundtrack to 2001. Yet his music still seems to behave like some cultural attache from outer space, looking at humanity with wonder and bemusement, from undreamt-of angles and through weird lenses.

Not that there aren't points of contact with musical tradition. In the Piano Concerto (1985-6), with its aggressive bouncing chords for the soloist and treatment of the orchestra as a malleable bloc sonore, the reference point is clearly Bartok. Yet the drastic gestural interruptions and the polarisation towards extremes of play and ecstasy are entirely personal. Last week, Pierre-Laurent Aimard gave a stunningly virtuoso account of the solo part, matching his demeanour quirk for quirk with the music, while Jonathan Nott, conducting the breathtakingly precise Asko Ensemble, showed that imaginative and poetic body language can be as effective in contemporary music as Boulezian traffic signals.

On Friday the definitive five-movement version of Ligeti's Violin Concerto was given its UK premiere by Saschko Gawriloff and the English Northern Philharmonia. It is if anything more ambitious than ever in its trompe- l'oreille patternings. Yet while its technical and sonic inventiveness is clear, its poetic basis is less so. It felt at times as if its only kind of structural propulsion was a death-defying urge to go over the precipice - exciting, but soon predictable.

Perhaps the piece demands even more clarity than Elgar Howarth and the orchestra could deliver, but I wouldn't be inclined to blame the ENP, which brought tremendous panache to the Macabre Collage (arranged from Ligeti's opera) as also to Benedict Mason's phenomenally talented post- Debussyian tone poem Lighthouses of England and Wales and Stefan Niculescu's earnestly intense Cantos, in which the soloist, Emil Sein, did just about every party trick with his saxophone and clarinets short of swallowing them.

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