A 20th-Century Master Tingles Both Ear and Brain

United StatesUnited States Ligeti: Eric Jurenas (countertenor), Jay Campbell (cello), AXIOM, Jeffrey Milarsky (conductor). Alice Tully Hall, New York City. 25.2.2015 (BH)

György Ligeti: Sippal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel (2000); Six Bagatelles for wind quintet (1953); Cello Concerto (1966); Chamber Concerto (1969-70)

Cellist Jay Campbell, conductor Jeffrey Milarsky, and AXIOM in Ligeti's Cello Concerto. (Photo: Richard Termine)
Cellist Jay Campbell, conductor Jeffrey Milarsky, and AXIOM in Ligeti’s Cello Concerto. (Photo: Richard Termine)


From the second half of the 20th century, few composers have had the lasting influence of György Ligeti, whose style grew from Bartókian angularity into something difficult to classify. (In case of doubt, that’s a good thing.) This survey with conductor Jeffrey Milarsky and members of the Juilliard School’s AXIOM ensemble demonstrated the breadth of the composer’s work—not to mention its difficulty.

The work of Bartók can be glimpsed in the early Six Bagatelles, packed with wit and rhythmic deftness, and played with stylish glee by Andreas Lamo (flute), Lauren Williams (oboe), Anton Rist (clarinet), David A. Nagy (bassoon), and Kaitlyn Resler (horn). This delight derives its insouciance from the contrasts between solemn wind chorales that exult in the instruments’ timbres (Nos. 2 and 5) to those with rhythmic vivacity (Nos. 3 and 6). Sometimes a single bassoon “plop” is the only punctuation mark needed.

But by the 1960s Ligeti was pulling away and ushering in a revolution. His Cello Concerto treats the instrument initially as a ghostly interloper, rising from an extraordinarily muted opening (marked “pppppppp”) to mingle with a chamber ensemble. As the work progresses, it seems to develop into a shadowy cat-and-mouse game, with neither side quite able to fully outwit the other. Cellist Jay Campbell, a formidable musician, was a model of concentration and calm—including at the end when a skeletal cadenza finally arrives, with little sound other than the pale tapping of his fingers on the strings.

From just a few years later, the Chamber Concerto is even more radical, with its parade of textures—slow-moving cluster chords, chirping strings, and near the end, a wild piano episode. In his elegant program notes, Matthew Mendez calls the third movement Movimento preciso e meccanico “…one of the most fully realized haywire contraptions in [Ligeti’s] entire catalog.” By the end, one had even more rapt appreciation for the AXIOM players’ achievement.

The evening opened with the starkly effective Sippal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel (2000), one of the composer’s last works, which showed yet another side of the composer’s textural and rhythmic concerns, as well as humor. With poems by Sándor Weöres, the work is scored for singer and four percussionists (here the excellent Andrew Funcheon, Tony Guarino, Brandon Ilaw and Christian Lundqvist) and vocalist (originally a mezzo-soprano). Countertenor Eric Jurenas held his own amid a massive arsenal of marimbas, tuned bowls, slide whistles, ocarinas, and—in the fourth section called “Alma álma” (“Dream”)—an eager chorus of harmonicas.

Bruce Hodges

1 thought on “A 20th-Century Master Tingles Both Ear and Brain”

  1. I saw this quirky, adventurous concert performed by AXIOM and it was masterful, not to mention delightful.. The countertenor and percussionists were more than outstanding~


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