A Birthday Homage to Ligeti in Budapest

Hommage à Ligeti: UMZE Chamber Ensemble, Conductors: Zoltán Rácz, Barbara Hannigan – Palace of Arts, Budapest, 23.5. 2011 (BM)

Musica Ricercata (1951-1953) –
Continuum (1968)
Aventures (1962)
Nouvelles Aventures (1962-1965)
UMZE Chamber Ensemble

– intermission –

Passacaglia ungherese (1978)
Hungarian Rock (1978)
Etude No. 1: Harmonies (1967)
Etude No. 2: Coulée (1969)
Ricercare (1953)
Volumina (1961-1962/1966)
Mysteries of the Macabre (1974-1977/1991)

Miklós Spányi – harpsichord
Zsigmond Szathmáry – organ
Gábor Csalog – piano

The UMZE Chamber Ensemble
Barbara Hannigan (soprano), Katalin Károlyi (mezzo soprano), Paul-Alexandre Dubois (baritone)

Conductors: Zoltán Rácz, Barbara Hannigan

The UMZE Ensemble with Zoltán Rácz. Courtesy of Budapest Palace of Arts

The UMZE Chamber Ensemble (Új Magyar Zene Egyesület – New Hungarian Music Society) launched its Hommage à Ligeti concert series in 2006, and it now serves as an annual occasion to celebrate the composer’s memory and preserve his work. The yearly concert takes place on or around May 28 th, which was Ligeti’s birthday, and this year, five years after his death, the program once again covered different phases, genres and instrumentations. That said, a little more variety would have been welcome this time – but presumably when the Sonata for Solo Viola was withdrawn from the program, filling in additional keyboard works was the only option at relatively short notice. Sadly, though, too much of a good thing can be just that: too much. The result in this case was that the evening felt a good deal longer than it actually was.

But this was not for lack of fine musicians! Gábor Csalog, currently one of his country’s leading pianists, was the first of the evening’s impressive line-up to take the stage. The Hungarian EU-Presidency has been handing out a complimentary all-Liszt CD featuring his superb rendition of several transcendental and Paganini Etudes, but he is also known to many as a champion of contemporary music and this was reflected in his performance of Musica Ricercata – Ligeti’s series of eleven studies using a progressive number of tones, from two in the first piece up to twelve in the last – not by virtue of technical brilliance but by making powerful ‘sense’ of the more introverted sections, the seventh and the ninth dedicated to Bartók and Frescobaldi, respectively, but above all the fifth, rubato lamentoso.

Miklós Spányi, the famous early keyboard specialist, was next with the Continuum – and who better to play this vintage Ligeti, a piece which the composer described as “consisting of innumerable thin slices of salami” producing a “paradoxically continuous sound”, so fast that it conveys the impression of standing still, achieved by playing at least 15 to 16 notes per second, as Spányi must have been doing, although needless to say it would have been impossible to tell with the naked ear.

Whoever thought modern music is essentially a non-humor domain is proven otherwise by Ligeti’s masterpieces Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, and no wonder these marked the high point of the evening. The three singers, who all have authoritative performances of this repertoire under their belts, gave a tour de force rendition of this wacky exchange, sung and spoken in a make-believe language – if that is indeed what it is, but the brilliant thing about this music is that it can be whatever you want or imagine it to be. “I know already the music I will write, but the words – I haven’t decided yet,” Ligeti once said, and although the words he chose in this case are unknown to mankind, he recorded them quite meticulously on paper. When performers are as true to the score as they were in this case, and that is no small feat, they create a realm of sounds in which imagination knows no boundaries. It was a special treat to see these pieces performed live, not only because the vocalists and were manifestly enjoying themselves while producing such exuberant absurdities, but also – and not least – because it is fascinating to watch percussionist Aurél Holló, whose tasks included crumpling and ripping up paper, as well as beating a carpet. He and his colleagues outdid themselves yet again under Zoltán Rácz, the driving force behind this yearly event.

After the interval, there was more harpsichord music and a substantial amount of organ playing, the latter provided by Zsigmond Szathmáry, who cut a suitably wild figure up on the gallery at the concert hall’s enormous organ (of which Ligeti, with whom he studied, would no doubt have approved), duly impressing the audience, in particular with his last piece, Volumina – nomen est omen. It has been said that as a composer – the hat he wears more prominently than that of the organist – Szathmáry pursues an undogmatic pluralism, emphasizing de-familiarization of instrumental tone colors by virtue of unusual playing techniques and electro-acoustic means. Surely there can be no greater ‘Hommage à Ligeti’ than performing his music and carrying forward his ideas.

Barbara Hannigan finished off the program by singing and conducting what has become her signature piece, Mysteries of the Macabre – three coloratura arias from Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre – a hysterical trio which she delivered with aplomb and dressed in black leather trappings. The text is semi-nonsensical this time and the music is clearly linked to that of Aventures, although it is no longer chromatic. The UMZE ensemble followed their highly unusual conductor with great poise, while Zoltan Rácz, watching the shenanigans from the stalls, looked very pleased indeed.

It would have been a tough call to come up with a fitting encore after this most outlandish of pieces, so everyone involved was clearly happy to leave it at that. Besides, as Hannigan had just informed us in her silvery soprano: bear in mind – silence is golden.

Bettina Mara

Read a review of another Hommage à Ligeti event here: http://www.musicweb-international.com/SandH/2009/jan-jun09/ligeti2605.htm