Festival Maribor (1):Hell Breaks Loose Ligeti, Bartok and Sculthorpe at Maribor Festival, Slovenia

SloveniaSlovenia  Festival Maribor: Sculthorpe, Ligeti, Bartók: Richard Tognetti (violin), Festival Maribor Orchestra, Marko Letonja (conductor). Maribor (Slovenia), Union Hall, 02.09.2011 (LV)

Peter Sculthorpe: Earth Cry (1986)
György Ligeti: Violin Concerto (1992)
Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra (1943)

Ligeti’s massive and somewhat scary Violin Concerto of 1992, a sophisticated blend of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz and Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, has rightly assumed the title of a 20th-century masterpiece. Like all of Ligeti’s music, hearing it live brings you far closer to the music’s purpose and soul than any recording could. Over a carefully constructed and dramatically superb structure, Ligeti drapes musical adventures of the most amazing sort, a bewildering pastiche of the hip, the traditional and the definitely intoxicated. The whole is compounded by a battery of unique instrumental effects including one violin and one viola each sitting by themselves playing deliberately mistuned instruments.

The 30-minute, 5-movement concerto begins with a movement that is neither fast nor slow before continuing on to a series of encounters between the orchestra and the soloist. Requisite to a deeply human experience that is also a virtuoso concerto, it poses immense difficulties, both showy and subtle, concluding with a brilliant cadenza that, after a short final respite, brings the music to a close.

In addition to showing off the chops and charisma that have made him a superstar, violinist Richard Tognetti “sold” the concerto with a performance that stressed not only the obviously dazzling theatrical elements but also those meant to communicate.

For their part, the sold-out Festival Maribor audience particularly enjoyed the music’s fierce and unyielding technical challenges, the effects of which were perhaps compounded by bouts of thunder raining outside the hall – as if extra percussion instruments had been written into the score. Led by Marko Letonja, the Festival Orchestra delivered the demanding Concerto after only a few hours’ rehearsals – an astounding testament to what world-class musicians can produce under pressure. (As an aside, in 2012 Letonja arrives in Strasbourg where he will lead the over 100 musicians of its Orchèstre Philharmonique, and embark on an ambitious program including hopefully, a new recording initiative.)

After intermission, Letonja and the ensemble returned to give a reading of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra that for once had a feel of the composer’s Eastern European roots and studies, coupled with playing from the horns and winds that handled the Concerto’s virtuoso aspects with glee, clarity and triumphant power. The rich, full sound of Union Hall again made clear the virtues of a live concert.

Peter Sculthorpe’s Earth Cry, borrowing harmonic principles from the astronomer Kepler and evoking nature with the help of an indigenous Australian instrument or two, was a comforting starter to the concert before Ligeti’s hell broke loose.

Laurence Vittes