Part 1 of the Philharmonia's two-part Ligeti retrospective began on Thursday of last week at 7.30pm precisely - more or less - with one of the big bangs in the history of his universe. The San Francisco Polyphony is governed, we are told, by a sort of magnetic field, a scheme of intervals and harmonies which dictate the shape of its myriad melodies. But its effect - at least initially - is of a kind of explosive redistribution of Ligeti's many, many musics. Imagine being at the centre of it. Chaos. Imagine that all around you whizz, dart, flurry all the elements of this chaos. And that suddenly, unexpectedly, there is stasis. Pure, consonant, stasis. Ligeti is the Prospero of such moments. They concentrate his mind and ours, turn the ear in new directions, pull focus on the way ahead. In San Francisco Polyphony, a solo clarinet leads on: a fragment of melody, like a remnant of half-remembered Mahler. But no sooner have you clocked it (pun intended) when the air is alive again with multiplicitous scurryings and skirlings and the static of their electricity. Violins, piccolos and piano eventually trace out a sheer skyline - a kind of neon horizon - with basses far below in the abyss. It's an amazing sound - until the next one. Ligeti doesn't ever try your patience. Few composers are so attuned to their audience's concentration thresholds. Esa-Pekka Salonen and an unblinking Philharmonia made every second count.
San Francisco Polyphony ends abruptly - like something snapping - with a crack of the slapstick. Slapstick - now there's another Ligeti speciality. Shortly before the close of his Cello Concerto - brilliantly played here by a sober-looking but not sober-sounding David Geringas - Ligeti's very own brand of Looney Tunes wreaks havoc. Spookhouse exclamations - like parodies of musical tics from an erstwhile avant-garde - threaten to overwhelm an already harassed soloist. His exit, in a cadenza of whispering pizzicati vanishing into nothingness long before his fingers have ceased fighting, is at once comic and affecting. In the silent aftermath your mind goes back to the single tone which opens the piece. Layered octaves at one point seem to reach all the way back to the dawning of Mahler's First Symphony. Ligeti has always rejoiced in reinventing the past.
And reconciling the unreconcilable. Whose inspired idea was it to preface his own Requiem with a rare performance of Debussy's Le Martyre de Saint- Sebastien? I'll wager Ligeti had a hand in the deed. Divine decadence, sacred and profane, spiritual and carnal, the agony and the ecstasy, homo and erotic, the cults of Christ and of Adonis. In another life, Ligeti will have got there before Debussy. It's the potency of contraries once more. It's the idea that you can go too far and still come back. Debussy courts an odorous text - by Gabriele d'Annunzio - that all the perfumes of Arabia could not mask, and he elevates it in music of quite indecent beauty. Monday's concert "staging" introduced a hint of gender-bending (a touch of the Victor / Victorias about the cross-dressing of the female narrator and soloists) and some shambolic lighting, neither of which added much to an impeccable musical performance. Kelly Hunter (excellent) delivered the narration in English. It sounds naughtier in French.
The hereafter according to Ligeti will not have been quite what the exquisite Sebastien envisaged. The moaning and wailing of multitudes, the growl of a grotesquely disfigured basso profundo, the phlegmy rattle of contra- bassoons and bass trombone - the macabre carnival that is Judgement Day. What a sensational piece this Requiem is. Heaven can wait while purgatory beckons. The fear of God wears a hellish smile here. You want to laugh out loud but dare not. The soprano Sibylle Ehlert hyperventilates in ear- popping pyrotechnics above and below the stave. The shriek of high clarinets or trumpet sometimes take the sound right out of her open mouth creating an almost visual distortion like some terror-stricken gargoyle. But at the 11th hour Ligeti discovers the simple harmony of two voices - Sibylle Ehlert and mezzo Charlotte Hellekant - and the closing "Lacrimosa" engenders a peace which passeth all understanding. Even Stanley Kubrick's. Terrific performance (literally) from the London Sinfonietta Chorus. The carnival continues in the new year.
Further concerts: 19 and 22 Feb 1997, RFH, SBC, London SE1 (0171-960 4242)