BARTÓK Contrasts LIGETI Concertos for Piano, Cello and Violin
György Ligeti’s Piano Concerto (1985‑88) has been threatening to transform itself into a modern composition lollipop and I, for one, have been reluctant to be taken along for the ride. Following the relentless pace of invention that marked Ligeti’s 1960s and ’70s advance – Atmosphères to San Francisco Polyphony without too many people noticing the join – the jaunty rhythmic jig and slide-whistle sound effects of the Piano Concerto can be made to sound like Gershwin busking at the circus. But now pianist Hidéki Nagano and the Ensemble Intercontemporain under Matthias Pintscher issue a reminder that Ligeti’s harmonic and rhythmic procedures had certainly evolved; dredge beneath the surface, though, and his gestural language was still dealing with the sonic theatre-of-the-absurd he had staged during his mid-1960s Aventures and Nouvelles aventures.
If anyone still harbours doubts over the viability of the CD, no doubt Alpha Classics will be wanting a word. Everything from the quality of paper (the booklet is printed on a gorgeous waxy paper like ancient parchment to the touch) to the trimly minimalist packaging and the thoughtfully assembled programme has obviously been carefully weighed up. Boulez’s 1994 DG release of Ligeti’s three solo instrumental concertos (also with the Ensemble Intercontemporain) set the terms of the debate, but never have such resolute performances of these pieces been captured with such lucent detail – and if that weren’t enough, Alpha also gives you top-notch versions of Bartók’s Contrasts and Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion to help frame the historical context.
Here, Ligeti’s two late-period concertos (piano and violin) bookend his 1966 Cello Concerto. This concerto begins in silence, but not the voyeuristic silence typical of John Cage. The engineers suddenly open the aperture and you’re dropped ears first into a masterfully balanced, orchestrated silence out of which a single high cello note imperceptibly slips. This performance reminds you that Ligeti coordinates the silence as diligently as he does the notes. And when the narrative crumbles into chattering plops, squeaks and rustlings, we are walked right inside this carefully honed noise. Cellist Pierre Strauch feels in overall control in a way that Nicolas Altstaedt in his recent recording for Neos did not.
As already trailed, Nagano’s take on the Piano Concerto is an instant classic. The physicality of his playing is matched by the orchestral Punch and Judy; listen out near the beginning of the first movement for the way grumbling subterranean murmurs emanating from the general direction of the contrabassoon stoke the ensemble fire, and for the insistent mechanised click-clack of woodblocks. Personally I’ve always found Ligeti’s Violin Concerto the most illusive of his late-period works. But Pintscher keeps the unfolding structural narrative rigid (as opposed to Christina Åstrand and Thomas Dausgaard’s weirdly perfumed, romanticised 2000 recording) – which, just as in the Piano Concerto, allows Ligeti’s fantasy to roam free and wild. Review filed, I’m off to have another listen, this time for pure pleasure.