A Luminous Lode of Ligeti

Gyorgy Ligeti Works cover

WP 2019 - 2LIGETI: String Quartets Nos. 1(“Metamorphoses Nocturnes”) & 2. Hommage à Hilding Rosenberg. Andante & Allegretto / Arditti String Quartet / Balada si joc / Irvine Arditti, David Alberman, vln / Ejszakka, Reggel  (Night, Morning). Idegen foldon. Magany (Solitude). Ha folyoviz volnek (If I Could Flow Like the River). Pletykazo asszonyok (Gossip). Betlehemi kiralyok (The Magi). Bujdoso (Wandering). Lux aeterna. Lakodalmas (Wedding Dance). Inaktelki notak. Matraszentimrei dalok (Songs from Matraszentimre). Papaine (Widow Papai). 3 Phantasien. Magyar etudok (Hungarian Studies). Haj, ifjusag! (Youth). Hsuvet. Hortobagy. Magos kosziklanak (By the Huge Rock). Kallai kettos (Kallo Two-Step) / London Sinfonietta Voices; Terry Edwards, cond / Études, Books 1 & 2; Études, Book 3, No. 15: White on White. Musica ricerata / Pierre-Laurent Aimard, pno / Nonsense Madrigals / The King’s Singers / Mysteries of the Macabre (arr. E. Howarth) / Sibylle Ehlert, sop; Philharmonia Orch.; Esa-Pekka Salonen, cond / Aventures & nouvelles aventures / Phyllis Bryn-Julson, sop; Rose Taylor, alto; Omar Ebrahim, bar; Philharmonia Orch.; Esa-Pekka Salonen, cond / Der Sommer / Christiane Oelze, sop; Irina Kataeva-Emar, pno / 3 Songs. 5 Songs / Rosemary Hardy, sop; Aimard, pno / 4 Lakodalmi tanc (4 Wedding Dances) / Hardy, Eva Wedin, sop; Malena Ernman, mezzo; Aimard, pno / Continuum. Hungarian Rock (Chaconne) Capriccio No. 1. Invention. Musica ricerata (arr. P. Charial) / Pierre Charial, barrel org / Poème Symphonique for 100 Metronomes / François Terrioux, barrel org / Études, Book 2 (excerpts). Continuum (arr. J. Hocker) / Jürgen Hocker, player pno / Indulo (March). Polifon etud (Polyphonic Études). 3 Wedding Dances. Sonatina. Allegro. 3 Pieces for 2 Pianos / Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Irina Kataeva-Emar, pno / Capriccios Nos. 1 & 2. Invention / Kataeva-Emard, pno / Passacaglia ungherese. Hungarian Rock (Chaconne). Continuum for Harpsichord / Elisabeth Chojnacna, hpd / Musica ricercata: No. 11. Andante misurato e tranquillo. 2 Études. Volumina / Zsigmond Szathmary, org / Trio for Violin, Horn & Piano, “Hommage à Brahms” / Saschko Gawriloff, vln; Marie-Luise Neunecker, horn; Aimard, pno / 10 Pieces. 6 Bagatelles / London Winds / Viola Sonata / Tabea Zimmermann, vla / Le Grand Macabre (1997 revised version in 4 scenes) / Sibylle Ehlert, soprano (Gepopo); Laura Claycomb, soprano (Amanda); Charlotte Hellekant, mezzo (Amando); Jard van Nes, mezzo (Mescalina); Derek Lee Ragin, countertenor (Prince Go-Go); Graham Clark, tenor (Piet the Pot); Steven Cole, tenor (White Minister); Richard Suart, baritone (Black Minister); Martin Winkler, baritone (Ruffiack), Marc Campbell-Griffiths, baritone (Schobiack); Michael Lessiter, baritone (Schabernack); Willard White, bass (Nekrotzar); Frode Olsen, bass (Astradamors); London Sinfonietta Voices; Philharmonia Orchestra; Esa-Pekka Salonen, cond / Sony Classical 19075877922

This wonderful 9-CD compilation of some of György Ligeti’s best music, originally issued in 2010 as Sony Classical 88697616412, is here repackaged with a different cover but the same excellent music. I’m not sure why Sony felt the need to put it out with a different cover and number—too often, the machinations of major record labels frustrate and baffle me—since the earlier compilation is clearly still under copyright (God forbid a record company miss the chance to make sure they hog everything they’ve ever issued since the days of wind-up gramophones), but since I missed it the first time (it was not reviewed in the classical music magazine for which I wrote at the time because all the recordings were older ones, mostly from the 1990s) I’m more than happy to review it now.

Ligeti was extraordinarily lucky to be one of a handful of avant-garde composers of the 1960s and ‘70s to somehow gain mainstream acceptance (some of the others being George Crumb, Krzysztof Penderecki and, a bit later, Peter Maxwell Davies), in his case because part of his extremely eerie Requiem and some other music was used on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking hit film of 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Strangely, Ligeti had no further intersection with popular culture after that, but he became an “in” composer among the new pot-smoking, acid-dropping Hippie counterculture, and remained so into the 1980s. For whatever reason, the Requiem is not represented in this set, but neither are his well-known orchestral pieces Apparitions, Atmospheres or Ramifications.

Ligeti was a groundbreaker in the field of music using tone clusters as a basis for his style as well as constantly moving chromatics that had no grounding in any specific tonality, and the latter is what we hear in his string quartets. What makes his music, for me, vastly different from such contemporaries as Elliott Carter is that his music was often (but not always) more rhythmic and consistently more dramatic. Carter was a cold composer; Ligeti was, if anything, hyper-emotional, typical not only of Hungarian composers in general but also stemming from his persecution by both the Nazis and the Soviet Communists. He was finally able to flee Hungary for Austria in 1956, where he was at least able to explore his new style which had been considered verboten by both the Nazis and the Communists. (So much for those of you who think that Socialism and Communism are the way to go…these are not enlightened governmental policies.) Much of his style was influenced by his meeting and discussing music with Karlheinz Stockhausen, another avant-gardist who enjoyed at least a little bit of exposure in popular culture, but to my mind Ligeti’s work was superior and more interesting than Stockhausen’s, which often drifted off too much in the direction of electronic music.

That being said, there were (and are) very few non-classical lovers who never followed him any further than the Requiem and Lux Aeterna because they really don’t give a crap about such music. They just liked the “effects” in his music insofar as 2001: A Space Odyssey went. This set, then, is for those who did like some of his other works and would like to explore him in much more depth, as I was.

CD 1: His String Quartet No. 1 is typical of his work: an edgy but emotionally powerful work, tightly constructed with most of its eight movements flowing into one another. A key to Ligeti’s aesthetic can be heard in the sixth movement, which begins as a sort of cockeyed waltz interrupted by loud, edgy passages in double time with strong backbeat syncopations. Even in those passages in which the strings play legato figures, they never settle into anything resembling a tonal center, yet somehow he makes the listener feel as if a tonal center was just around the corner waiting to appear. It was an aural cat-and-mouse game that he played with his listeners that lasted more than 40 years.

If anything, the second string quartet is even edgier and more abstract, with more of the tone cluster effects Ligeti used to such great effect in his famous Requiem. Whereas the strings played more or less together in the first quartet, in the second they are pitted more often against one another with competing edgy figures that seem to be fighting one another. I found this performance of the piece by the Arditti Quartet far superior to that by the Dudok Kwartet of Amsterdam, which is not only slower in tempo but cooler, almost cold, in temperament, a style that is antithetical to the highly emotional Ligeti. (And how did I get to hear the Dudok Kwartet’s recording? That’s an interesting story in itself. I logged into Sony Entertainment’s Freegal website, provided to library patrons across the U.S., and clicked on Vol. 1 of the Ligeti Edition. From there I downloaded the entire quartet for free. But when I clicked on the performance to play it, lo and behold, it was not the Arditti Quartet on Sony but the Dudok Kwartet on Resonus. Yes, that’s right: Sony pirated a TOTALLY DIFFERENT RECORDING of the quartet and tried to palm it off as their own. That’s why I have zero respect for record companies and their “100 years plus life” copyrights.) In the third movement, “Come un meccanismo di percisione,” Ligeti indulges in his most abstract style, yet the listener remains entranced by the way he can manipulate musical materials.

My guess (I had no booklets available for download) is that the Andante and Allegretto for string quartet is an early work, since it is far more lyrical than the others and actually has a tonal center, almost in the Kodály tradition (Zoltan Kodály was one of his composition teachers). I suppose that Ligeti liked it well enough to not destroy or remove it from his catalog, but it is certainly an unusually lyrical work. You could almost get away with playing this on one of those vacuous “clahssical” music stations to heal your mind, body and spirit. In a way, I found it an odd choice to end the CD with. Perhaps it should have been programmed between the two string quartets, just for contrast.

CD 2: These are mostly short a cappella choral works. At times their use of harmony is somewhat related to, but not quite as edgy as, his famous Requiem, although many of them (Idegon foldon, Magany (Solitude), Betlehemi kiralyok (The Magi), Ha folyoviz volnek (If I Could Flow Like the River) and Inaktelki notak) are again closer in style to his Kodály period. The mezzos in the London Sinfonietta Voices are a little sour-sounding but otherwise sing very well.

CD 3: This is Ligeti’s solo piano music, played to the hilt by Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Most of this is in his mature style, very edgy with driving rhythms and no tonal base to hang onto. Some of it sounds like Olivier Messiaen on acid. Being written for the piano, Ligeti allowed himself to inject stronger rhythms into the music; the fourth etude in Book I, “Fanfares,” almost has the drive of boogie-woogie piano, using an insistent eight-to-the-bar rhythm beneath its odd, stabbing, atonal chords in the right hand. In the fifth etude, “Arc-en-ciel,” Ligeti uses a repetitive rhythm and a single chord to create a hypnotic spell on the listener without resorting to mindless minimalism. In Book II, “L’escalier du diable” sounds like boogie-woogie with the rhythm running backwards. The first number in Musica ricerata, “Sostenuto,” is an exercise on just one note (A), repeated ad infinitum while the volume and rhythm gradually increase until it just stops. And there’s an even stronger hint of jazz—this time quite obvious—in Musica ricerata No. 3, the “Allegro con spirito,” which he follows with a nutty little waltz in Eb major. In No. 7, “Cantabile molto legato,” he combines two opposing elements by running a quadruple-time bass line under soft, slow notes and chords in the right hand. If nothing else, this disc illustrates the range and breadth of Ligeti’s music-making. Unlike so many of today’s young composers, he had more than one “voice” and was not embarrassed to explore its different facets. It’s what made him such a good composer and not just a producer of “cheap effects.”

CD 4: An album of songs, the first six of which are choral (The Nonsense Madrigals) but the rest of which are sung by vocal soloists—Sibylle Ehlert, Phyllis Bryn-Julson, Rose Taylor, Omar Ebrahim, Christiane Oelze, Rosemary Hardy, Eva Wedin and Malena Ernman—with orchestral or piano accompaniment. The Nonsense Madrigals are in Ligeti’s mature style, rather bizarre to say the least, sort of a cousin to Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King. I’ve never been a huge fan of the King’s Singers; for me, their performances are just too icy both vocally and temperamentally to be very interesting; but here they do a good job overall. Mysteries of the Macabre is one of his more famous pieces, a specialty for wacky soprano Barbara Hannigan who often sings it with Simon Rattle dressed as a slutty schoolgirl chewing gum. Here it is sung by Ehlert, a very high soprano and a favorite of Esa-Pekka Salonen, who conducts the performance here. Rattle generally conducts this, as he does many works, a bit on the slow and relaxed side, which adds a little “space” to the music. Salonen conducts it here as he does so many works, fast and taut, which helps one hear the structure of the music better but has just a touch of coldness about it (although Salonen is seldom as cold as his early influence, Pierre Boulez, usually was). Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures is something like a cousin to Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody, in which a series of sounds that resemble comic book noises are set to music. This work, in particular, shows Ligeti’s wild sense of humor.

Der Sommer is a modern but surprisingly lovely song, performed beautifully here by the splendid soprano Oelze. The 3 Songs which follow also have modern harmonies but also strong Hungarian rhythms in the Kodály style, and are sung very nicely by soprano Rosemary Hardy, who also performs the earlier and more conventional (but still quite interesting) 5 Songs. Hardy is joined by Ernman and Wedin in the 4 Wedding Dances, which are also in Ligeti’s earlier, more Hungarian-folk-music-influenced style. Their voices blend very well, which was a pleasant surprise for me. All in all, a very interesting and entertaining CD.

CD 5: This is the strangest of the nine CDs, an album played mostly on a barrel organ. In case you’ve forgotten (or never knew), barrel organs are those box things on wheels that street beggars of the 19th and early 20th century used, usually with a monkey on a leash, also known as hurdy-gurdys. The pieces of music (or tunes) were encoded onto the barrel using metal pins and staples: pins for short notes, staples of varying lengths for longer notes. Each barrel carried several different tunes. Pinning the barrels was something of an art form, and the quality of the music produced by the barrel organ is largely a function of the quality of its pinning. Mostly they played popular folk and opera tunes like Verdi’s “La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto. I’m not sure, without seeing the liner notes, if Ligeti actually liked this idea, since most of the pieces here are arrangements for barrel organ by the performer, Pierre Charial. Several of them, such as Continuum and Hungarian Rock (Chaconne), were originally written for harpsichord, while Capriccio No. 1 and Musica ricerata (see Vol. 3) were written for piano, which is a whole different sound world. The only piece here that appears to be played by the “instruments” written for it is the Poème Symphonique for 100 Metronomes. I really hated the sound of the barrel organ in this music and even hated the Poème Symphonique, which of course is all rhythm and clatter, so I give the entire disc a thumbs down.

CD 6: We’re back to keyboard music here, played by pianists, harpsichordists and duo-pianists, and thus much more on home ground for actual music and not noisy B.S. Several of the pieces here appear to be early Ligeti in his Kodály style, albeit with his own personal touches thrown in. Happily, Pierre-Laurent Aimard is back on this one, and the other performers are also quite excellent. And here we get both of his Capriccios played by a pianist, Irina Kalaeva-Emar, Passacaglia ungherese, Hungarian Rock (Chaconne) and Continuum played by harpsichordist Elisabeth Chojnacka, and 2 Études, Volumina and one excerpt from Musica ricerata are played on a conventional organ by Zsigmond Szathmary. Some of this music is decidedly edgy, however, particularly the 3 Pieces for 2 Pianos which is in Ligeti’s most abstract style. For the most part I really enjoyed this CD, especially the bizarre Hungarian Rock chaconne which is played with either paper or some other foreign object placed between the strings of the harpsichord and has a rhythm that sounds as if it’s running backwards. The Continuum, written in Ligeti’s most advanced style, features very congested harmonic clashes (semitones and the like) similar to his Requiem. The two organ etudes sound like something caused by cosmic noises in outer space. After the early pieces, this disc is the most far-out representation of Ligeti’s style(s).

CD 7: These are chamber works for solo viola, wind quintet and a trio of violin, horn and piano as a tribute to the famous Brahms trio of the same combination. But this horn trio, which opens the record, may indeed follow the same basic tempo pattern in the first two movements—an Andantino followed by a Vivacissimo—but it’s clearly not in the same tonal universe. Nonetheless, Ligeti writes in a surprisingly idiomatic vein for the French horn, and the player here is none other than the superb (and still not widely-enough known) Marie-Luise Neunecker, whose recordings of the Strauss Horn Concerti is the absolute best I’ve ever heard, even better than Dennis Brain of sainted memory. Aimard is back on piano and a name new to me, Saschke Gawriloff, is the bright-toned violinist. Yet beneath the unsettled harmonies the music is surprisingly lyrical in the first movement, not really among Ligeti’s edgiest compositions, and at times almost resolves its harmonic tangle. Rather than end, as Brahms did, with a peppy movement, Ligeti ends with a sad Adagio, in which descending chromatics in the piano line make it sound even sadder.

The 10 Pieces for Winds are also in his advanced style, de-emphasizing rhythmic movement and emphasizing unusual timbral blends and crushed chords, although the second piece, “Prestissimo minaccioso e burlesco” is rapid and lively. The seventh piece seemed to be imitating car horns, an effect Ligeti would use again—using real car horns—as the prelude to his opera La Grand Macabre. The 6 Bagatelles, also for winds, is rhythmically livelier and not as harmonically complex. These are fun, light pieces, quite enjoyable to listen to.

The solo Viola Sonata is very close to tonality or at least Eastern European modality, with long, sculpted lines in the first movement and sharp, Bartók-like Magyar harmonies in the second.

CDs 8 & 9: These are devoted to his surrealistic, Dada-esque Le Grand Macabre, Ligeti’s only opera. Based on a banned 1934 play by avant-garde Belgian writer Michel de Ghelderode, it depicts the fictional country of Breughelland where the residents have gone hog-wild with over-the-top addictions and social excesses. Piet the Pot, “by trade wine taster,” is the town drunk; there is a couple named Amanda and Amando who enjoy making love in public, the court astronomer Astramadors who likes to dress like a woman and his sadistic wife Mescalina, and the royal Prince Go-Go who raises the Value Added Tax 100% to finance his own excesses. Astramadors forces Go-Go to mount a giant rocking horse for his riding lesson while the others mock him. Into this Dada-esque world comes the seer Nekrotzar, who predicts death for all of them and urges them to clean up their acts and get their morals in order. But they don’t do either—clean up their acts or die—and Nekrotzar eventually gives up and leaves.

This performance is sung in English (at Ligeti’s insistence for English-speaking audiences) in its 1997 revision. The revision eliminates most of the formerly spoken dialogue and sets it to music, a great improvement. When this recording was initially reviewed in Gramophone, the critic commented that although this is clearly the preferred version of the opera, he liked the earlier version (sung in German) on Wergo better because it had more “edge.” I can understand his feeling. As a conductor, Salonen, as I mentioned earlier, can be somewhat cool in temperament and Le Grand Macabre is supposed to be an edgy opera. But since one needs to respect the composer’s wishes and use the 1997 revised version, the only performance I could find that compares to this is a 2012 DVD version from Arthaus Musik featuring tenor Chris Merritt as Piet the Pot, soprano Barbara Hannigan as Gepopo and Venus, Ana Puche as Amanda, Inés Moraleda as Amando, countertenor Brian Asawa as Prince Go-Go and basso Werner van Mechelen as the central character, Nekrotzar. Except for Hannigan, however, who is consistently excellent from start to finish, all of the singers mentioned above (and the others) have defective voices, mostly wobbles, even Asawa who shouldn’t have one at all as a falsetto singer. William R. Braun, reviewing this DVD in Opera News in December 2012, claimed that all the singers were “highly proficient.” I suppose he has a different standard of “highly proficient” than I do. In addition, the sometimes obscene libretto was “tweaked” by some loser named Geoffrey Skelton “to make it even more obscene.” Leave it to these Regietheater nutcases to turn a shocking opera into something so disgusting that people would want to walk out on the performance.

In this live recording from 1998, Salonen, as usual, chose a cast of simply outstanding singers. Even veteran British basso Willard White, who by then was having some trouble singing the standard repertoire, sounds as solid as a rock, as does British tenor Graham Clark as Piet the Pot and in fact every other member of the cast. The performance features not one but two outstanding sopranos, Sibylle Ehlert (who sang Mysteries of the Macabre on CD 4) in the role of Gepopo, which Ligeti said he wrote to “out-Zerbinetta Zerbinetta,” and Laura Claycomb, who was an outstanding Anne Trulove in a later DVD production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, as Amanda, but really, all of the singers are solid and expressive, and at times Salonen bursts out of his usually tightly-reined-in style for some really explosive moments. As usual, his taut conducting brings out the structure of the work even better than Boder, who did a fine job on the 2012 video.

Moreover, since the music alternates between wackiness and lyricism, I found myself drawn into the score much better via Salonen’s approach than through Boder’s, good as he was. Music is both an art and a form of mathematics—just ask Johann Sebastian Bach or Igor Stravinsky—and modern music in particular tends to suffer from performances that are too loose in structure (as, do, in my opinion, older works as well, though the Romantic-era lovers will argue this point with me). In Salonen’s skilled hands, the opera whirls and spins like a top gone mad, with both instrumental and vocal lines flying out of its gravity into musical orbit. In short, until we get a grittier performance with singing this good, this is the reference version of this bizarre black-humor opera.    —            —            —            —            —            —

And so we come to the end of our survey of Ligeti, minus the Requiem and such important orchestral works as Reflections, Atmospheres, Apparitions and the Chamber Concerto for 13 Instrumentalists (all of which, in my opinion, should have been included, but c’est la vie). With the exception of CD 5, which in my opinion is a complete waste, it is as good a representation of Ligeti’s output as any, thus I recommend it highly. Just download and burn the orchestral works just mentioned to a CD from YouTube and make that CD 5, and you’ll have as good a Ligeti collection as you could imagine.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “A Luminous Lode of Ligeti

  1. YB Schragadove says:

    His orchestral piece Lontano (not included in this set) was used in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror film, The Shining, released in 1980.


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