Ligeti at 80 weekend, Barbican Centre, London, 18-19 Oct 2003

Andrew Clements’ review in the Guardian.

A whole weekend of music, films and other baubels celebrating Ligeti’s 80th birthday (which was way back in May, but you know how it is with booking places for yr birthday bash). I got to one of the films (the talk with Ligeti’s recent biographer, Richard Steinitz, and the composers Steve Martland and Robert Saxton was sold out, and the first film clashed with England-South Africa…), and the two centrepiece concerts: four concertos (although, disappointingly, not the Cello), and a staged version of his only opera Le Grand Macabre.

Clements says the four concertos ‘span’ Ligeti’s career, but they also serve as bookends. Strangely, aside from the opera, none of Ligeti’s music completed between 1951 and 1988 was here. And – again the opera notwithstanding – this forms the bulk of the music upon which his career has been founded, and his reputation achieved. There was – I think – performance of Poème Symphonique (yeah, yeah), but I have a feeling this was more because of its interactive/didactic element (“Have you got a non-electric, mechanical, pyramid-shaped metronome? Bring it along…”) than anything else.

The three late works are very much the compositions of a man reaching the latter days – and greatest maturity – of his career. They lack none of the invention of his earlier music, but they have that assurance of technique that tends to come with age. I can’t imagine any composer younger than 50 scoring parts for ocarinas and swannee whistles (played here with plastic, toucan-shaped toys) in that most serious of genres, the piano concerto, and doing it with a (mostly) straight face. It’s the kind of gimmick you can only get away with if you have the confidence 80 years give you. The simple fact that many of Ligeti’s late works – the concertos and piano studies – draw on historical, Grand Master resonances (you can’t not think Beethoven, Brahms, Liszt) are an unmistakeable sign that this is a composer putting his house in order, assuring his legacy. Which is fine – but it is telling that it is with such works that the Barbican chose to mark this twilight anniversary.

At the start, though, we had the UK première of the Concert Romanesc, written in 1951 while Ligeti still lived in Soviet Hungary, two years before Stalin’s death, and five before the uprising and the moment Ligeti made his escape to the West. This piece has been available on CD for a while now (Teldec 8573 88261-2), but was clearly programmed as the best opportunity for its UK stage debut.

It’s a fine, curious piece – miles removed from Ligeti’s post-1956 work, but one of the better works to have been composed in Hungary at that time. It is the fourth movement that really grabs the attention. The piece is given the bombastic, pseudo-folky ending familiar from a lot of Soviet music (Shostakovich, later Prokofiev), but Ligeti tacks on an extraordinary coda – a stratospherically high violin hovers above some offstage horn-calls, suspending all expectations. It’s a frequent trick to a lot of later Central European music – you see it a lot in Górecki, for example – to subvert and upset a musical structure like this. The form suggests that the ending should be here, everything you’ve heard said it should be; but instead, it’s here, and nothing that went before meant quite what you thought it did.

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