Ligeti’s Creative Journey And Influence Retraced In Centennial Concert

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Klangforum Wien paid tribute to Hungarian composer György Ligeti at the Konzerthaus on Jan. 13. (Photos by Carlos Suarez)

VIENNA — The ensemble Klangforum Wien programmed a fitting homage to György Ligeti with a chamber music concert at the Konzerthaus here, part of a series of events to mark the composer’s centennial this year. Covering his early and mature periods while also including works by Unsuk Chin (his most-performed student) and the late Claude Vivier, the concert on Jan. 13 provided an opportunity to both explore the development of Ligeti’s highly personal aesthetic and consider the ways in which he opened the doors for subsequent generations.

Ligeti’s His Chamber Concerto for 13 instrumentalists — written for and first performed by the Vienna ensemble Die Reihe under the baton of the composer Friedrich Cerha in 1970 — emerged as a kind of masterclass in instrumental texture, juxtaposing microtonality with free counterpoint, stasis, and frenzy. The piece opens with dreamy woodwinds over low strings before celesta and piano enter with unexpected timbres (on keyboards: Johannes Piirto). The following movement arrives with an extended cluster chord but cedes to shrill, unsettling tones (“sempre con fuoco, tutta la forza,” indicates the score).

The third movement, dedicated to Cerha, becomes playful if not zany with its relentlessly oscillating melodies and pizzicato figures, while the final Presto features textures that ricochet around the ensemble. Under the precise but unobtrusive leading of the up-and-coming conductor Elena Schwarz, Klangforum Wien delivered a virtuosic, fluid performance, with immaculate transitions between wildly different blocks of material.

Soprano Daisy Press sang Claude Vivier’s ‘Bouchara’ with Klangforum Wien.

The concerto was preceded by Artikulation, the first work Ligeti completed after fleeing from his native Hungary. The approximately four-minute electronic piece was composed and premiered in Cologne, Germany, in 1958, two years after he and his wife escaped by foot by illegally crossing Austria.

Artikulation explores the sounds of a computer as if they were a language in their own right, deploying particles that evoke droplets of water but also sputtering, ringing, and splinters of sound that are superimposed at the climax. The music was accompanied by a video by Max Gehmacher that provided a visual realization of the sonic material, heightening awareness of the work’s architecture.

If Chin’s mature period has brought forth sound worlds that carry only her signature, the 1998 composition Xi — here heard in its Austrian premiere — bears the unmistakable influence of her mentor. The approximately 25-minute piece for ensemble and electronics is written in five unbroken sections, probing sonic and structural possibilities in an imaginative but structured fashion. Hollow, electronic grains of sound are developed into increasingly complex interactions between the mechanized and the analog, now exploiting the instrumentalists as a bed of resonance, now subjugating them in nearly apocalyptic fashion.

Press changed attire for Ligeti’s ‘Mysteries of the Macabre.’

The work’s textures are at times so detailed as to sound pixilated — as such, Xi is at once firmly planted in the European post-World War II school shaped by Ligeti, Boulez, and others but also forward-looking in its highly sophisticated exploitation of computerized sound. Schwarz and the ensemble gave a model performance, so much so that Chin was beaming as she bowed onstage after the performance.

The connection of Vivier to Ligeti may be more dubious, but his Bouchara: Chanson d’amour for soprano ensemble and tape also evoked parallels to the Chamber Concerto, with its imaginative approach to form, open-ended exploration of color, and oscillating textures. The work for soprano and ensemble is part of a series about the real and fictional voyages of Marco Polo; in addition to Bukhara, which is located in Uzbekistan, Vivier also dedicated pieces to the Uzbek city of Samarkand and Zipangu, Japan.

Bouchara reveals Vivier’s francophone roots with its subtle use of timbre, in particular his exploitation of percussion instruments such as gong and tubular bells to create dramatic transitions. The vocal part, which includes utterances of an imaginary language, is largely treated like an instrument, from warbling to atmospheric textures. The soprano Daisy Press delivered the challenging part with an initial lapse in intonation but great flexibility and thespian sensitivity.

Ligeti’s ‘Poème symphonique‘ is scored for 100 metronomes.

Her stratospheric range and fearless presence were even more suited to the role of Gepopo, the secret police officer at the center of Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre, a suite of three songs from the opera Le Grand Macabre arranged by Elgar Howarth. Strutting onstage in a black denim one-piece, Press joined Klangforum Wien for a rhythmically scrupulous but wild performance that did full justice to the score. Press seems born to sing 20th- and 21st-century music; presumably today’s composers will take advantage of her effortless high notes and adventurousness in their future operas.

The evening ended with Ligeti’s Poème symphonique, more an installation than composition written for 100 metronomes. As presented in the artistic concept of Andreas Harrer, the beating devices were divided onto five tables and set off simultaneously by two pairs of people. In keeping with the composer’s intentions, the resulting sound evokes a giant typewriter, eventually mesmerizing the listener. As the last metronomes stopped ticking, one couldn’t help but think that Ligeti would be smiling down on this concert, which took such care to explore his oeuvre and enduring influence on the development of contemporary classical music.