Artifice and nature

Clocks & Clouds: music of Ligeti Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

In this age of hype, it's good to learn of a world-class composer whose claims to fame aren't based on messages received from outer space, or pieces about Bosnia, or the worship of strange gods. The composer is Gyorgy Ligeti, now in his early seventies. His name is not yet a household word, but his output is widely admired for nothing less than the most important artistic quality of all: its implicit musicality.

One sign of this is the way his works make equal sense either programmed by themselves or alongside standard repertoire. Wednesday's main concert at the QEH featured his recent Violin Concerto with the Mother Goose suite by Ravel and the Music for Strings by Bartok, composers for whom the ideas of artifice and nature implied in the titular "Clocks and Clouds" of the SBC's Ligeti festival were no less valid. Just as intriguing, however, was an early evening recital devoted to Ligeti alone. Sibylle Ehlert, a stratospheric soprano with a strongly theatrical bent, sang Mysteries of the Macabre, the UK premiere of a reworking of scenes from Ligeti's first opera. Before that, Pierre-Laurent Aimard played a selection of Ligeti's piano Etudes. After Debussy's, they are the finest to be written this century; and, dare it be said, Ligeti's are, perhaps, played rather more often.

Indeed, the Etudes began the evening by going to the heart of the matter. Sometimes diaphanous, at other times sinuous, they are shaped, paradoxically, both by the composer's inability as a pianist and by the actual grip of fingers on a keyboard. Coupled with Ligeti's power to quicken a technical process with sounding musical logic in its note-to-note succession, yielding a richly expressive dividend, their manner penetrated the essence of his art. Some of them were illustrative: Fanfares and Arc-en-ciel, and the rather Lisztian Automne a Varsovie. A typical pattern, found in the famous Desordre, was both formal and suggestive; having manically crashed its way to both ends of the keyboard, the music stopped in mid air, as if suddenly impatient with the feeble limits of human endeavour.

There was a similar gesture concluding the Intermezzo of the Violin Concerto, the third of five movements which, on paper, had a suite-like appearance, yet which showed in performance a steady growth from a whimsical opening to a passacaglia of brooding intensity. Like much of Ligeti's recent music, the concerto deftly combines his modernist interests, in unusual tunings, for example, as in the nebulous Ramifications heard after the interval, with reconstructions of a canonic and ethnic past. To the tremulous sound of four ocarinas, soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann span a violin tune of utmost serenity in the medieval-styled second movement. Come the finale, he was pitched by feuding polyrhythms into battle royal with his fellow violinists. The cadenza, when it came, was surprising yet inevitable, an event you might have predicted but never imagined.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted with an insider's knowledge of every telling detail. The Philharmonia's sound was embracing yet intimate, boosted by the pleasant acoustic of the hall itself, but chiefly on account of the polish and command of their solo and ensemble playing. Last concert: 7.45 tomorrow, QEH, SBC (0171-960 4242)

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