Next to Count Dracula, György Ligeti is perhaps the most famous person from Transylvania. His bite and his powers of transformation, however, are of a different order altogether.
One of the giants of contemporary music, Ligeti is impossible to categorize. Neither 12-tone purist nor glib postmodernist, he is a splendid original who lacks any anxiety of influence. At 82 he remains the youngest composer around, and his music is the focus of a three-evening festival, The Essence of Ligeti, presented by the Chamber Music Society at Alice Tully Hall on January 13, 15, and 17.
"He never repeats himself," says Dutch conductor Reinbert de Leeuw, who leads the first program on January 13. "There's always development, and a constant curiosity in all music, including non-Western. There's a vitality in all his work."
The introductory piece on the bill, the early Old Hungarian Ballroom Dances, written when he was more or less forced by the state to write in the style of Zoltán Kodály, shows the influence of the country to which Ligeti moved after World War II. That piece will be followed by the magnificent Chamber Concerto, composed in 1969-70, after he fled Hungary and eventually became an Austrian citizen. Scored for 13 instruments, the Chamber Concerto has four contrasting movements, one of which exhibits the composer's infamous "micropolyphony."
Micropolyphony is when polyphonic textures are so thickly woven that single voices become indistinguishable, creating dense webs of sound. His classics in this otherworldly style are Lux Aeterna and Atmosphères, both used on the sound track of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. What's surprising is that this way of smooshing melodies together occurred to Ligeti while contemplating Cézanne, who supplied a vibrant picture of sonic possibilities and forms independent of traditional motivic development or polite polyphony. Another movement demonstrates Ligeti's flirtation with the mechanical: the idea of not-so-perfect gadgets running amok and creating splattery rhythms in spite of the supposed clockwork.
Also on the program is one of Ligeti's last works‹his infirmities keep him from composing now‹the Hamburg Concerto for Horn and Strings (1998-2002). As de Leeuw explains, "This piece is not only for horn soloist, as Ligeti also adds four natural horns. They play in their natural key, which means they sound out of tune. His fascination with intonation and micro-intonation gives this piece its own color, different from other pieces."
Then comes the comic relief. Mysteries of the Macabre for Soprano and Ensemble are arrangements of three coloratura arias for the Chief of the Secret Political Police from Ligeti's hilarious apocalyptic opera, Le Grand Macabre.
"It's an ensemble piece that's completely dependent upon the person performing it," observes de Leeuw. "And we have Barbara Hannigan who is totally stunning. Ligeti heard her in Vienna and fell off his chair. We see another side of Ligeti, which is humor‹so rare in contemporary music for someone to have feeling for humor, for the bizarre, for the absurd." This funny bone is also embodied in Aventures/Nouvelles Aventures, which are set to radically meaningless texts à la Beckett and "constructed from secret recipes," according to the composer.
French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a longtime champion of Ligeti's music, will also be on hand to perform a selection of études on the festival's second program on January 15: No. 11 ("En suspens"), No. 4 ("Fanfares"), No. 1 ("Desordre"), and No. 6 ("Automne à Varsovie"). Ligeti, who admits having horrendous piano technique, nonetheless plunged ahead to create virtuoso études. He wanted to transform an inadequacy into something professional and riveting and his models here were Chopin and sub-Saharan polyphony. As he explains in his excellent notes in Sony's Ligeti Edition: "[M]y études are neither jazz nor Chopinesque-Debussian music, neither African nor Nancarrow, and certainly not mathematical constructs. I have written of influences and approaches, but what I actually compose is difficult to categorize: it is neither 'avant-garde,' nor 'traditional,' neither tonal nor atonal. And in no way postmodern, as the ironic theatricalizing of the past is quite foreign to me."
The January 15 program also includes the Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano. Again, Ligeti's notes illuminate: "It goes without saying that I am always, subconsciously, a creature of fashion; hence the half ironic, half deeply serious conservative/postmodern Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano, in which I used a false quotation from Beethoven's 'Les Adieux' Sonata as a germinal motive and as an 'Hommage à Brahms.' As a result, the piece has odd angles and trick floors that do not fit anywhere."
Whereas Ligeti's String Quartet No. 1 (Métamorphoses nocturnes), also heard on January 15, is a Bartókian dark canvas of unctuous, undulating motifs, the String Quartet No. 2, performed on the last program, January 17, comes out of his experiments at the Cologne Electronic Studio merged with principles of Renaissance Flemish polyphony. There's also the Sonata for Solo Viola, a series of six different character pieces of devious intonation, and the much earlier Sonata for Solo Cello, which had to be performed without the second of its two movements for a while because of its "formalistic" nature. Anything smacking of Western intellectualism or decadence was prohibited.
Like the Cello Sonata, the Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet were performed minus the last movement at its Budapest premiere in 1956 because its dissonances were too "cosmopolitan" for the art police. The Ten Pieces for Wind Quintet, from 1968, are put together by alternating a virtuoso concertino piece for each of the five instruments with ensemble pieces in between. Beware: No. 9 was inspired by Ligeti's childhood memory of hearing several girls with high voices sing Hungarian folk songs in less-than-perfect unison, creating delicious distortions.
As for the "essence" of Ligeti? De Leeuw remarks that Ligeti's intellect is wedded to "a volcanic temperament." But perhaps Aimard puts it best. "This is someone who is extremely curious, open-minded and in contact with the world as it is," he observes. "He is always questioning, always changing. In a way, Ligeti is still stomping his feet in Transylvania, and you can feel that wild, radical dimension‹the rudeness, sometimes, and an intensity that is very special. Today, he is the only composer who is appreciated and respected by the most varied amount of people. I find that fascinating: someone so free and so himself having such an impact."
Robert Hilferty is an arts reporter and music critic for Bloomberg News, Radio, and TV.