MUSIC / Laughter in the dark: Stephen Johnson on a celebration of Ligeti at the Barbican

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The Independent Culture
LAST SATURDAY evening, while televisions all over the country were tuned to the Eurovision Song Contest, the London Sinfonietta celebrated the achievement of Gyorgy Ligeti. It was the kind of coincidence Ligeti himself might have liked; after all, Europe does look increasingly like his operatic Breughelland these days (Norman Tebbit as the suspiciously Death-like Nekrotzar; the Maastricht Treaty as the 'End of the World' that never quite happens), and the idea of representatives of warring ex-Yugoslavian states battling it out with Euro-pop isn't so very remote from the spirit of Le Grand Macabre.

In fact, in a world sated with madness and the grotesque, Ligeti's wildest imaginings seem profoundly sane. When his Piano Concerto first appeared in the late 1980s, the use in the slow movement of siren, police whistle and ocarina - to say nothing of the endless slow, descending chromatic figures - seemed to some like quaintness, or simple poverty of invention. In Saturday's performance by the Sinfonietta and the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard it lived up to its marking, 'deserto'. A kind of agonised emptiness pervaded this music, nowhere more so than at its central climax - a hair-raising fusion of lament and desperate clowning.

But the effect of an evening of Ligeti, at least when performed with the understanding shown here, is far from bleak. As Samuel Beckett once admitted, however nihilistic the vision, the very fact that one tries to express it at all is a kind of affirmation. If that holds for Beckett, how much more so for Ligeti? The sheer vitality of his invention - even in the rapt stillness of certain pages of Melodien - is elevating. Melodien has been aptly described as a 'study in textures', but few studies pursue their musical brief with such delight.

Works such as Melodien and the Chamber Concerto have been under the Sinfonietta's collective belt for some time, and they were played with the kind of assurance that comes from long acquaintance - as Ligeti acknowledged in a short speech before the main concert's second half. The only performances that didn't come off were the three keyboard pieces in the early evening chamber recital: perhaps the Barbican Hall isn't the best venue for solo harpsichord.

But the work that followed, the Horn Trio, came across splendidly. Again, the sense of desolation - or in Ligeti's words 'weeping and lamenting' - is finely balanced by that sense of the thrill of invention. It is fascinating to consider that this piece was once held to signify 'the death of the avant-garde', as though Ligeti had turned his back on his past adventures. The same exploring spirit is discernible here as in all the other works. One simply sees more facets of a prodigious musical personality.

The only regret was that we weren't allowed to hear the early self-parodic Fragment. Ligeti withdrew it after hearing it in rehearsal because, he told us, it simply wasn't very good parody. Having experienced the trumpet and orchestra Mysteries of the Macabre - a version of the Chief of Police's coloratura arias from Le Grand Macabre - as played by Hakan Hardenberger, it was easy to suspect that Ligeti was being a little over- modest. But it was good to hear him at the same time paying tribute to Hoffnung and PDQ Bach, and to be reminded that the clowning isn't simply a mask, but that it comes from as deep within him as the weeping and the lamenting.