Today is the anniversary of the birth of György Ligeti, one of the 20th century’s true innovators in music.
There are many longer pieces we could have chosen to mark this, but here are two shorter works that illustrate the range of his creativity. First up is Hungarian Rock, a short piece for harpsichord, which pushes the boundaries of what the instrument is capable of:
From the keyboard we turn to the choir, and the remarkable Lux Aeterna, which had such an effect on film director Stanley Kubrick that he used it in 2001: A Space Odyssey:
BCMG NEXT [George Blakesley (clarinet), Anna Vaughan (violin), Alma Orr-Ewing (viola), Finley Spathaky (cello), Rob Hao (piano)
Fujikura Scion Stems (2010) Illean Février (2019) Fujikura Halcyon (2011)
CBSO Centre, Birmingham Saturday 29 April 2023 (7pm and 9pm)
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Spring may have arrived tardily this year, but Birmingham Contemporary Music Group was certainly in full bloom with this judiciously balanced and absorbing programme that featured one post-war classic and two pieces by one of the leading composers from the present time.
First, though, the welcome opportunity to hear a work by Lisa Illean, whose understated and fastidiously realized music conceals more than is evident on initial hearing. Such is true of Januaries, inspired by memories of holidays in Queensland together with descriptions of the Australian landscape. Its innate subtlety finding a direct parallel in this composer’s drawing of often ethereal yet always evocative timbres and textures from her 12-strong ensemble; and throughout which BCMG responded with due commitment to the direction of Otis Lineham.
The first of two pieces this evening by Dai Fujikura, Perpetual Spring drew inspiration from the Japanese Garden in Portland (US), notably the idea of growth as a process both ongoing and inexorable. Heard from this vantage, the clarinet represented a conceptual and expressive focal point; around which the string quartet weaved its dense if never claustrophobic texture with audible dexterity. Here, too, the music implied considerably more than was ever stated – no doubt in accord with the ‘‘power of ‘quiet’ nature’’ its composer took as his starting-point.
Although it now tends to be overshadowed by its predecessor, Ligeti’s Second String Quartet remains one of his most significant works – its five movements a compendium of his musical practice during the late 1960s, but with a formal and expressive focus that amply sustains the 20-minute whole. It was a measure of this account that a cumulative impetus carried through not merely to the explosive fourth movement, but also a finale whose textural mirage took in allusions to what went before: the music not so much ceasing as dispersing beyond earshot.
The string quartet was also Toshio Hosokawa’s chosen medium for Blossoming. Taking the image (and most probably its mythical association) of a lotus as its starting-point, the piece opened out in music typical of this composer for its unforced elegance and felicitous aura.
Considerably more engrossing an all-round experience, Fujikura’s Secret Forest is among the most impressive of his ensemble works and not least for its visceral conception. Placed centre-stage, the string nonet was balanced with groups of woodwind and brass either side, and above the auditorium. It was the ensuing interplay between the spatially arrayed sound-sources, strings intense in their eloquence and winds hieratic in their intangibility, that the conductor shaped over its course – not forgetting the solo bassoon, seated in the auditorium, who became a human figure plotting a course through this sonic landscape. The piece was directed with conviction by Kazuki Yamada and promises much for the Fujikura commission Wavering World, which he will premiere with the CBSO in Symphony Hall on January 17th.
A pity not more punters remained for the post-concert performance by musicians of BCMG NEXT, which featured two more works by Fujikura. Scion Stems took string trio as the basis for a wide-ranging discussion of textures made even more immediate by its brevity, whereas Halcyon pursued a more circumspect yet never disengaged interplay between clarinet and string trio. In between, Février found Illean’s writing at its most sensuous in its sequence of exchanges between clarinet, cello and piano to which these players likewise did full justice. The current NEXT line-up performs its final concert on June 11th, while BCMG itself returns to Birmingham Town Hall on May 12th for its TREE Concert featuring a new commission by Christian Mason alongside one of the most impressive compositions by Helmut Lachenmann
Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet (1869, rev. 1880) Stravinsky Violin Concerto in D (1931) Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 in F minor Op. 36 (1877-8)
Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
Symphony Hall, Birmingham Wednesday 2 March 2022
Written by Richard Whitehouse
Coming toward the end of her tenure as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla presided over this orthodox programme of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky given additional resonance by the geopolitical context against which it was heard.
At its centre was the Violin Concerto which Stravinsky wrote for his then duo partner Samuel Dushkin, whose four succinct movements nominally correspond to what is frequently thought a typical work from his neo-classical years, but with Patricia Kopatchinskaja involved this was anything but a straightforward rendering. From the start, a theatrical burlesque undercut any notions of Classical or even Baroque poise – those acerbic contrasts of its opening Toccata complemented by the speculative ambivalence of its First Aria or plangent eloquence of its Second Aria; the final Capriccio no less provocative in its constantly changing harmonic and rhythmic emphases. Regretting the absence of a cadenza, Kopatchinskaja instead gave Ligeti’s early Ballad and Dance – the latter in partnership with leader Eugene Tzikindelean.
Ambivalence in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet is more to do with what sort of piece it is – the composer taking over a decade to get the formal balance of this ‘fantasy overture’ right. While there was no lack of evocative immediacy, MG-T was more concerned with bringing out its symphonic logic; not least in a sombre introduction and notably circumspect take on the ‘love theme’. For all the ensuing cumulative impetus, it was the woodwind chorale near the end – Tchaikovsky’s empathy with his subjects made explicit – as proved most affecting.
It was with Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony that MG-T concluded her first concert in charge of the CBSO at the 2016 Proms, which memory recalls as similar in approach to that heard this afternoon. The complex formal trajectory of the first movement (tempo markings given inadvertently in the programme as being those for the whole piece) was adroitly negotiated – audibly intensifying when the pervasive ‘fate’ motto emerges at the start of the development and reprise, then a coda whose ultimate implacability never descended into mere histrionics.
Its oboe melody limpidly rendered by Steve Hudson, the Andantino unfolded audibly as ‘in modo di canzona’ – the emotional surge of its central section (rightly) held in check and the closing pages suffused with pathos. Neither was the Scherzo treated as an excuse for empty virtuosity – strings articulating its ‘pizzicato ostinato’ outer sections with delectable humour, and woodwind relishing the ‘harmonien’ writing of its Allegro trio. Following on apace, the Allegro con fuoco found viable balance between untrammelled exuberance and a methodical progress such as makes the climactic return of the ‘motto’ structurally as well as emotionally inevitable. If MG-T (purposely?) underplayed this crucial episode, then there was no lack of resolve in her handling of a peroration which brought a defiant rather than triumphal close. Ukrainian flags on and above the platform were ample evidence of just where the thoughts of musicians and audience alike were directed. As postscript to this concert, MGT’s choice of a soulful Melody in A minor by the late Myroslav Skoryk could hardly have been more apposite.
Leclair Violin Sonata in C major Op.5/10: Tambourin (c1734) Widmann 24 Duos: Valse bavaroise; Toccatina all’inglese (2008) J.S. Bach Prelude in G major (from BWV860) (c1722) Francisco Coll Rizoma (2017) Domenico Scarlatti Sonata in G, Kk.305 Ravel Sonata for violin & cello (1922) J.S. Bach 15 Two-part Inventions BWV772-86 (selection) (c1723) Ligeti Hommage à Hilding Rosenberg (1982) Xenakis Dipli zyia (1951) C.P.E. Bach Presto in C minor Wq114/3 (c1768) Kodály Duo Op.7 (1914)
Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), Sol Gabetta (cello)
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London Tuesday 26 October 2021
Written by Richard Whitehouse
Combining two of the most charismatic and creative string players of their generation was such a good idea to make one surprised it had not happened earlier, but tonight the Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Sol Gabetta double-act hit the Southbank Centre in no uncertain terms.
A stomping entrée to Leclair’s Tambourin in C (a rare instance when Kopatchinskaja donned footwear) launched proceedings in arresting fashion, while Jörg Widmann’s Valse bavaroise and Toccatina all’inglese – both from his resourceful playbook of 24 Duos – allured and engaged. Bach’s Prelude in G (from BWV860) afforded a limpid breathing-space, then Francisco Coll’s Rizoma fairly intrigued with its incrementally shifting textures and ethereal harmonics – just the sort of piece, indeed, necessary for energizing the violin-and-cello medium. Kopatchinskaja admitted to disliking the arrangement of Scarlatti’s Sonata in G (Kk305) and canvassed the audience for its opinion, the response encouraging an incisive take on music whose enthusiastic response left her shaking her head in mock consternation.
The first half concluded with Ravel’s Sonata for violin and cello – much less often revived than it should be, ostensibly on account of the duo-medium, but an undoubted masterpiece when rendered with such commitment as here. Kopatchinskaja and Gabetta teased out those exquisite tonal obliquities of the Allegro, countered by the alternate brusqueness and suavity of the scherzo or distanced rapture of the slow movement; before the finale brought matters to a head with its headlong syncopation and no lack of that ‘spirit’ as indicated in the score.
A brief inclusion from Bach’s 15 Two-Part Inventions (BWV772-86) opened the second half with pointed understatement (presumably more so than the Scarlatti sonata that was originally scheduled), with the expressive poise of Ligeti’s Hommage á Hilding Rosenberg duly making way for the acerbic interplay of Xenakis’s Dipli zyia which is among the most Bartókian of the formative pieces to have found posthumous revival by this composer (who is hopefully being suitably commemorated throughout his centenary in 2022).
Kopatchinskaja and Gabetta then sat side by side for a speculative reading of C.P.E. Bach’s Presto in C minor (Wq.114 No. 3) made the more so through its being played pizzicato throughout. Interesting, too, how such an arrangement can dissolve any perceived boundary between musical epochs.
The programme reached a culmination in every sense with Kodály’s Duo, one of several large-scale chamber-works for strings on which his reputation as a composer of ‘abstract’ music rests. After a tensile account of the preludial Allegro, Kopatchinskaja and Gabetta rendered the central Adagio with sustained pathos and a timbral acuity made more so by their faultless intonation. Nor was there any lack of eloquence in the finale, its deliberate progress building a momentum that was released in the coda to heady and exhilarating effect.
Quite a concert, then, with a performance to match by two musicians who complement each other’s playing to a mutually beneficial degree. Hopefully they will be returning with another wide-ranging programme before too long. The enthusiastic audience evidently felt likewise.
Sara Hershkowitz (coloratura soprano, below), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Antony Hermus (above)
City Halls, Glasgow
Thursday 28 November 2019
Haydn Symphony no.22 in E flat major ‘Philosopher’ (1764) Ligeti Mysteries of the Macabre (1974-77; 1992) Wagner arr. Henk de Vlieger The Ring: An Orchestral Adventure (1991)
Written by Ben Hogwood
An evening of musical philosophy through three very different viewpoints, held together by superb orchestral performances and the artistry and energy of Antony Hermus, making his conducting debut with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
On this evidence it has the makings of a fruitful musical relationship. Certainly Haydn‘s Symphony no.22 in E flat major, known as the ‘Philosopher’, was carefully prepared and ideally executed. With just 26 players on the platform, and with most of them strings, the spotlight fell on the pair of horns and cor anglais players. They added unique colours and a doleful atmosphere to the profound opening Adagio, which had a steady accompanying tread. The harpsichord of Andrew Forbes was perfectly judged, complementing Haydn’s harmonic thoughts.
Orchestra leader Laura Samuel helped propel a second movement of earthy substance, which gave way to a charming Menuetto before a lively Presto wrapped things up, Haydn’s wit and inspiration in abundance once again. This was the second Haydn symphony in successive days for Arcana, after the CBSO and Riccardo Minasi’s persuasive reading the previous night. From experience a Haydn symphony a day really can go a long way – and indeed if you did two a week you would have enough for a whole year! Something definitely worth considering.
Back to the concert, and a complete change of tack for Ligeti’s uproarious and outrageous Mysteries of the Macabre, a concert piece lifted from his only opera Le Grand Macabre. And what a show it was from Sara Herskowitz, who has lived with this music some time, even on occasion dressing as Donald Trump to deliver it! Here – no doubt with the presence of BBC recording and streaming in mind – she gave Ligeti’s lines in the most sparkling of silver dresses. To say she owned the platform would be an understatement, for hers was a magnetic presence, often hilarious but frequently dazzling in its utter command of Ligeti’s demands. Using a large bottle of Irn Bru as a prop, she fair brought the house down in a performance that has to be seen to be properly appreciated. The virtuosi of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra were her equal.
Another radical change of subject and perspective saw us experience the whole of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in just over an hour after the interval. The man responsible for this orchestra-only compression is Dutch composer Henk de Vlieger, who has made a remarkable piece of music containing not just the best orchestral excerpts from the four operas but the vocal and thematic music of substance too. With some tasteful composing of his own to complement Wagner’s epic he has created a near-continuous piece of music that, while never expecting to eclipse the impact of the operas, is a wholly effective concert piece.
It helps when given the sort of commanding performance TheRing received here. The brass were simply superb – trumpets, trombones, Wagner tubas, tubas and horns responding to the considerable demands with relish, creating some wonderful sonorities while they did so. The Ride of the Valkyries was an early highlight, the theme given an appropriately majestic profile, while AlbertoMenéndezEscibano‘s horn solo for Siegfrieds Heldentat, given from out the back of the hall, was brilliantly done.
The BBC Scottish strings and wind were on the same exalted level, and the Feuerzauber (Magic Fire Music) and Waldweben (Forest Murmurs) were wholly evocative and enchanting. Hermus brought a keen dramatic instinct to his conducting, including rubato where appropriate but also making the silences really tell. Even before the first note sounded he secured complete stillness in the hall, setting the tone for the performance that followed – and when other silences occurred they were impeccably observed by the audience. There was a terrific, ballsy account of Siegfried und Brunnhilde, brass again to the fore, while the violins shone in their unison passages throughout.
Antony Hermus paced the whole ‘adventure’ perfectly, meaning this ‘bite size’ Ring cycle clocked in at around 65 minutes. Do catch this concert online if you can over the next few weeks, for it was a really well constructed programme of very differing but inspiring musical works. From the elegant and sometimes earthy Haydn, through the compressed but outrageous Ligeti to the grand and spectacular Wagner, there was something for everyone.
You can hear this concert on BBC Radio 3 from the evening of Tuesday 3 December by clicking here
You can listen to the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below, made up of some leading recordings of the works played.