Gyorgy Ligeti is one of the great survivors of the post-war musical vanguard. He was always an independent critic of that scene anyway, but he is, possibly, unique in having found a rapprochement with tradition without sacrificing a spirit of enquiry. The Barbican's two-day celebration of Ligeti's 80th birthday last weekend was prefaced by Pierre-Laurent Aimard's Wigmore Hall recital in which he played all 18 of Ligeti's piano Studies alongside six of Debussy's 12. Aimard pushed Debussy's pieces rather too hard for this hall, and the effect in the Studies for fourths and chromatic steps was blustery. But a mood of controlled frenzy is essential in much of Ligeti, and Aimard played to the hilt, though the "swing" of "Arc-en-ciel" and "En suspens" didn't quite come across. Aimard's concentration and energy was, however, impressive. The last two Studies of Book Two ("L'escalier du diable" and "Columna infinita") positively exploded.
Ligeti's Piano Concerto, with Aimard and the London Sinfonietta efficiently conducted by George Benjamin, seemed rather lost in the Barbican Hall on Saturday, despite its torrential detail. The five movements are difficult to perceive as a whole, whereas the Violin Concerto, with the same number, is more shapely. The soloist, Isabelle Faust, kept cool and played Christian Tetzlaff's cadenza, which makes much of a lyrical reminiscence of the second movement.
The newest Concerto, commissioned for Hamburg, featured Michael Thompson playing the modern valve horn as well as the old "natural" horn, joined by four natural horns in the small orchestra, which made a sweet-and-sour noise, like a small group of mourners. In seven short movements, some subdivided, the piece is much gentler than the other concertos, and just about coheres because no single movement is too elaborate.
The concert opened with the folkloristic Romanian Concerto, from Ligeti's early Hungarian period, and here again, horns played natural harmonics, while a solo horn against the eerie background of two high violins provided the magical ending.
The weekend culminated in a "semi-staged" performance of Ligeti's opera Le Grand Macabre, with Alexander Rumpf conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers, the bass Willard White in the title role, and the tenor Graham Clarke as your "little man", Piet the Pot - both ideal, seasoned performers of their roles. In its 1996 revision, the work has less speech and more music than the original, which was so ineptly staged by the ENO in 1982. While the opera's surreal and picturesque qualities and slapstick elements invite designers and directors to have a field day, most have been wide of the mark, for Ligeti has been disappointed by virtually every one of the 29 productions, if not outraged. He did at least approve of the sets for the 1979 Bologna production, and slides of these were projected on either side of the Barbican stage to point up characters and action, which, with minimal activity and surtitles, were pretty clear anyway.
Musically, it was a triumph - a vindication of Ligeti's beautiful and haunting vision.Reuse content