Philharmonia Orchestra / Ligeti series Royal Festival Hall, London
After reviewing a previous concert in "Clocks and Clouds", the Philharmonia Orchestra's two-year series surveying the music of Gyorgy Ligeti - the final pair of programmes of which took place on Monday and Wednesday - I was roundly ticked off by David Whelton, the orchestra's Managing Director. I had suggested that the series' somewhat patchy-looking programming, several concerts actually including very little Ligeti, was due not only to the inevitable financial constraints but also to the link between the concerts and Sony Classical's ongoing project to record most of the composer's output.

I was a bit unfair. None of the Sony recordings have been made around the London performances. And while various Ligeti compositions - and even whole concerts - in the series have travelled the globe, the relationship between concerts and recordings appears less direct than I had thought. The sponsorship of both projects by Vincent Meyer should, however, again be noted with gratitude; Sony's Gyorgy Ligeti edition was apparently launched through his initiative, and neither project would have happened without his close involvement.

Besides, as I pointed out in my previous review, the programmes turned out to reveal more connections with Ligeti than first met the eye. On Wednesday, for example, the opening performance of Debussy's La mer not only reflected Ligeti's considerable debt to the French composer, but contains important solos for flute and oboe; it was immediately followed by Ligeti's Double Concerto for flute and oboe. Of greater immediate importance, this concert's inclusion of Stravinsky's Petrushka as well as the Debussy presumably helped gain a good house.

Monday was less good in terms of programming and performances as well as audience. All Esa-Pekka Salonen's Latin-style gyrations couldn't persuade the Philharmonia to catch the required rhythmic or timbral elan in Iberia. The two Ligeti compositions we heard are really for chamber ensemble, not full orchestra, and the consequent platform alterations took ages. Roland Pontinen was an efficient soloist in the Piano Concerto, but was too easily sidelined by the many interesting things the composer gives his ensemble of 14 to do; his place at the far left of the platform didn't help. Monica Groop sang Ravel's Sheherazade with a nice feeling for text and melodic line, but lapses of intonation marred the orchestral accompaniment. Melodien was quite sharply characterised, but lacked the security and focus that an experienced ensemble such as the London Sinfonietta would customarily give it. A shame - with a large string section waiting in the wings to bring the concert to a more dynamic conclusion with Ravel's La valse, during which Salonen's baton disintegrated in all the excitement - that the rarely heard full-orchestral version of Melodien could not have been played.

Wednesday's La mer and Petrushka, though scarcely among the most polished performances I've heard, had much more colour and exuberance than had Monday's French music. Again, the Ligeti compositions were not for full orchestra. But it was especially worthwhile to hear the Double Concerto: a work, little played, which I've tended to regard as second division Ligeti. The performance here - in which the fine soloists were Emmanuel Pahud and the veteran oboist Heinz Holliger - made me think otherwise; its characteristic two-movement structure moves expertly and convincingly from wonderful explorations of static woodwind souls, orchestral as well as solo, in the first movement, to the final eruptions of pent-up energy in the second. Most sheerly entertaining, however, was the coloratura soprano Sibylle Ehlert's astonishingly well controlled as well as vividly characterised account of Mysteries of the Macabre, out-takes from Ligeti's Le grand macabre, which place the manic ululations of the opera's Chief of the Secret Police centre-stage. It rightly brought the house down.

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