Classical Review: Ligeti and a poem of ecstasy

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Ligeti: Clocks and Clouds, Part II

Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen

Royal Festival Hall, London

The Philharmonia's "Clocks and Clouds" may indeed be an "ambitious international Ligeti project ... spanning two years and 10 countries", and opportunities to hear this composer's music in concert should always be eagerly seized. But the two London programmes of Part II's first instalment (two further programmes follow next May) each places a couple of mainly short pieces by its featured composer into contexts devised, on the face of it, more for immediate appeal than for relevance.

The 1989 Ligeti by Ligeti festival on the South Bank, in which the Philharmonia also took part (sponsored, as now, by Vincent Meyer, who launched the present project), offered a more intensive, and truly ambitious, survey. The connection with Sony Classical's laudable "Gyorgy Ligeti Edition" also suggests that the concerts themselves aren't really the main point of Clocks and Clouds.

Perhaps, however, this is too cynical a view. For one thing, the context for the performances of "Lontano" and "Apparitions" on Thursday turned out to be more revealing than I'd thought. Bartok was an almost inevitable influence on his Hungarian compatriot. Mitsuko Uchida's unusually expressive account of his First Piano Concerto was interesting to hear, and the orchestra often played with considerable precision after a rocky start. Yet I missed the raw, hard-edged timbres for which this neo-classical, almost neo-brutal, work cries out.

But the really revelatory, and surprising, connection was with Skryabin's Le poeme de l'Extase. I don't know what Ligeti thinks of this mad modernist, whose star has waned more than waxed over the century. Both, however, have taken their inspiration from a disparate variety of sources and welded them through sheer force of personality; borrowings never sound borrowed without the interest being paid. Skryabin's stir-fried combination of Wagner, Debussy and the whole boiling cauldron of locality bubbling over into atonality at the 20th century's turn was treated by Salonen to a rare and spirited outing.

There were even specific links of heritage to the Ligeti pieces on offer. Some very Debussian orchestral sounds erupt in two passages around half- way through "Lontano", just after the magical arrival of the B-flat-F- natural tritone. And the whole work's suffusion with the glow of Debussy's approach to sonority and to the quality of particular musical intervals could aptly be savoured in a reading as slow as this one, despite some especially loud and unnecessary bronchial accompaniment. While the 30- year-old "Lontano" should be standard repertoire these days, "Apparitions", the first of Ligeti's "texture" compositions, is so experimental that it's off the wall; Oliver Knussen once called it "the ultimate Bruno-Heinz Ja-ja Hoffnung orchestral piece". Like Skryabin, Ligeti goes so completely over the top, in this case with a crazy amalgam of serialism, Bartokian "night music", cluster-composition and stop-go structure, that well before the final bottle-smashing, one is convinced that the whole thing is a send-up. Though few in the audience seemed to appreciate the joke, it was a delight to hear this rarity again too. It was sad that its composer was not present.

The next concert in the `Clocks and Clouds' series is on 11 November at the Royal Festival Hall.