Sunday, July 23, 2017

Ligeti’s Legacy (According to Ligeti)

According to my records, The Ligeti Project originated with Teldec Classics’ decision to release a series of recordings of performances of the music of György Ligeti that would not be exhaustive but would be both representative and authorized by Ligeti himself. The result was five CDs produced and released between 2001 and 2004, each with a booklet of Ligeti’s own commentary (translated into English by Louise Duchesneau). Ligeti was alive for the duration of the entire project, but he was in ill health. It is thus reasonable to assume that he worked at least relatively closely with the two conductors that prepared the performances that were recorded, Jonathan Nott with the Berlin Philharmonic and Reinbert de Leeuw with two Dutch groups, the Asko Ensemble, with which he worked frequently, and the Schönberg Ensemble, which he founded.

I first became aware of this project when my wife was given the last of the five CDs as a gift. At the time I appreciated the contents, but I had so many other Ligeti recordings at my disposal that I did not give the full collection very much thought. Nevertheless, when I became aware that Warner Classics had reissued the full five-CD collection as a box set, I decided that it was time to give the effort more attention. Incentives included the fact that I had been following de Leeuw’s work since his earliest vinyl recordings with the Schönberg Ensemble.

However, what really drew my attention was the fact that the “Hamburg Concerto” was included on the fourth CD of the set, the second of the two for which Nott was conductor. As a result of my recent interest in just intonation and composing with overtones of the natural harmonic series that do not “fit into” equal-tempered tuning, I discovered that Ligeti had composed this concerto for four natural horns and chamber orchestra. All four instruments worked with the first sixteen overtones, but each was based on a different fundamental frequency. This provided Ligeti with considerable flexibility in designing not only the contrapuntal interleaving of thematic lines but also the harmonies that would emerge from the resulting simultaneities.

Ligeti clearly put considerable thought into his efforts. The seven-movement concerto was composed between 1998 and 1999. However, he revised the score in 2003, which may have been in conjunction with Nott’s schedule for the overall recording project. If so, then this particular recording may be the most authoritative in the entire collection.

What is most important about the collection taken as a whole is the way in which all performances honor Ligeti’s meticulously extreme attention to detail. That attention is evident even in the earliest works that were recorded involving arrangements of traditional songs and dances from Romania and Hungary. (This amounts to the ethnomusicology of Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók viewed through a new set of lenses.) Most likely all recordings the result of excellent relations between the performers and the production team; and it is impressive to see that the album producers have specifically indicated which of the performances were given “live recording” treatment.

Those who have listened to other sources of Ligeti’s music may well quibble about what is missing. In my case what I miss the most is the piano version of the Musica ricercata collection (even though Max Bonnay’s arrangement for bayan is certainly interesting) and the works for harpsichord. Nevertheless, one cannot fault the value of any of the recordings in The Ligeti Project when it comes to helping the mind behind the ear orient itself to the many diverse and unique qualities of Ligeti’s approaches to making music.

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