Curioser and curioser
Queen Elizabeth Hall
Iannis Xenakis: O-Mega
Simon Holt: Lilith
György Ligeti: Síppal, Dobbal, Nádihegedüvel (London premiere)
Régis Campo: Violin Concerto (UK premiere)
George Benjamin: Viola, viola
György Ligeti: Hamburg Concerto (UK premiere)
Angel Gimeno (violin), David Hockings (Percussion), Katalin Károlyi (mezzo soprano), Paul Silverthorne, Genevičve Strosser (violas), Michael Thompson (horn)
George Benjamin (conductor)
Unusual orchestral setups always have something of a strange machine about them. The London Sinfonietta’s "New Ligeti" concert included works by other composers, and Ligeti is not really that old, but it was well in the spirit of the aged aged man sitting on a gate. Not only were all the works in it striking conceptual inventions, but the whole thing seems to be held together a bit by string and to work splendidly anyway.
The opening piece, Xenakis’s O-Mega, was bolted on to commemorate the composer, who died last weekend. A brief, intense accumulation of brass, strings and woodwind, introduced and marched off by drums, its title suggests that Xenakis meant it to be a succinct final gesture to his oeuvre. Simon Holt’s Lilith, in contrast, is concerned with pre-beginnings, Adam’s spectral first wife, identified with primeval night. It uses somewhat similar resources to O-Mega (obviously a help in programming the Xenakis), but is more expansive though still only nine minutes long. The clarinet emerges from time to time in a demon, Middle-Eastern dance that eventually conquers the amorphous sustained notes of the other instruments.
Ligeti's Síppal, Dobbal, Nádihegedüvel (which means "With pipes, drums and tabors") is also in a way a return to his beginnings. An arrangement for mezzo and percussion of seven poems by the Hungarian poet Sándor Weöres, it has echoes of Kodály’s folk-song settings, particularly in the exuberant nonsense numbers. Katalin Károlyi, for whom Ligeti wrote the work, gave a bravura, wonderfully dotty performance, and the London Sinfonietta’s percussionists likewise, even taking up harmonicas for the otherwise lyrical fifth movement, titled "Dream".
Régis Campo’s Violin Concerto and George Benjamin’s Viola, viola, on either side of the interval, were both concerned with re-inventing the instruments. Campo explores the fragmented possibilities of the violin, initially buried in the orchestral parts, gradually emerging into a coherent line. Angel Gimeno, for whom the work was written, and who was scrambled at short notice when Clio Gould went down with the lurgi, gave a confidant, theatrical performance. George Benjamin uses just two violas and gets an orchestra’s worth of sound out of them, sometimes at loggerheads, mostly working together in a deceptively massive movement.
Ligeti’s Hamburg Concerto, for a soloist playing both double valve horn and natural horn, with four natural horns in the orchestra, is also a kind of return to his childhood, and his memory of herdsmen playing Alpenhorns. It is in six short movements, the middle ones subdivided into even shorter segments, each with a characteristic rhythm and form briefly reminiscent of, again, of Kodály’s folksong settings. But the main interest is in the interaction of the overtones of the horns, which is done so skilfully that it is not at all painful as you might expect, but almost charming, certainly a touch pastoral, and often amusing and playful. Which of course, whatever his material, is entirely characteristic of Ligeti.