Of all the great modernist composers of the post-1945 generation, György Ligeti is perhaps the one whose works have been assimilated most convincingly into the concert mainstream. For that reason, his achievement didn’t really need the special attention of one of the BBC’s Total Immersion days as much as that of some of his contemporaries, but it nevertheless provided an opportunity to wonder again at the ingenuity and sheer beauty of his music.
A lunchtime selection of chamber works, performed by students from the Guildhall School, was followed by early-evening choral pieces from the BBC Singers. Later, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and its chief conductor, Sakari Oramo, switched the focus to Ligeti’s orchestral works, with a programme including the two great concertos, for violin and for piano, which dominated his output in the late 1980s and early 90s.
Despite the stylistic shift that overtook his music in the 1980s and which is celebrated in the concertos, they are just as radical and subversive as anything that preceded them. The Violin Concerto explores new possibilities of pitch and tuning, while the piano work ties itself up in polyrhythmic knots and bewilderingly shifting harmonic layers. Both of the Barbican soloists were excellent, though Augustin Hadelich’s performance of the violin work lacked the elemental ferocity of Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s in the Southbank Centre’s Ligeti weekend last May; in the Piano Concerto, Nicolas Hodges remained cool and unfussily precise, while the orchestra took off on its own adventures.
Around those works, Oramo offered a potted history of Ligeti’s earlier development. Atmosphères was the piece whose clusters and curtains of sound had announced him as a distinctive new voice in European music in 1961, while Clock and Clouds of 1973 epitomised the glistening, bewitching world of his mature music. Best of all was San Francisco Polyphony from 1974, one of Ligeti’s greatest achievements and the last purely orchestral piece he wrote. It’s both a virtuoso challenge for any orchestra and a virtuoso demonstration of his aural imagination as it morphs from melodies to patterns and back again, steadily building in intensity, like a latter-day equivalent of Ravel’s La Valse. The BBCSO played it superbly.
Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 5 March.