Liberty Hall Theatre/NCH, Dublin
9-11 November 2007
György Ligeti was still alive when Benjamin Dwyer had the idea of dedicating a festival to his work; Ligeti had been dead for over a year when the idea eventually came to fruition. It was, however, very much the living spirit of the composer that presided over Remembering Ligeti from 9-11 November. That spirit – some combination of openness, independence, generosity, wit, imagination and technique – inspires a fondness not always felt towards fellow-members of the post-war European avant-garde. It was to be expected that a fair section of the concert audience would be made up of enthusiasts delighted with the rare opportunity to hear a concentrated selection of Ligeti’s music; less expected was the level of interest and participation in the seminars. And those who wanted an interlude in visual as well as musical outer space, or a refreshing plunge into blood, horror and estrangement, could attend the Stanley Kubrick films that were included because of their use of Ligeti’s music. Given that the festival was a one-off, that resources were limited and that the venue, Liberty Hall, was an unusual one for this kind of music, the solid attendance across all activities was gratifying.
The launch was followed by the Poème Symphonique (for 100 metronomes). When originally unleashed on an unsuspecting audience of burghers in evening dress, this may have been an act of playful provocation by the young composer, but here it offered something different. The dense ticking of the array of metronomes that greeted us gradually thinned to the point where patterns could be heard or imagined. Then, as numbers reduced, our sense of time seemed to change and these mechanical objects to take on individual life, so that there was something almost poignant in the way the last few – the weak hand still dutifully attempting to work from side to side – finally gave up the ghost. A mechanical game certainly, but a game worth playing occasionally and, as proven by subsequent concerts and talks, a hint that in Ligeti the clockmaker and the poet are one.
The piano Études, played in their entirety that Friday evening by Ian Pace, are very much a case in point. They are indeed studies, as the composer picks out a pattern or figure – sometimes quite a simple one in essence – and works it to a paroxysm or causes it to proliferate beyond recognition. Some of the Études are airy baubles; others take on a ferocious intensity as they unfold or implode. To take the eighteen together was a feat in itself for the pianist and an event for the festival. It would be interesting, nonetheless, to discover whether attention remained uniform among listeners or whether particular pieces imposed themselves as our freshness of response was tested by sheer number. Though Ligeti gave – among other things – Central African music, Nancarrow’s works for player piano, various nineteenth-century composers, fractals and the stripes in a rotating stroboscope as reference points for some of these pieces, it is with Debussy that they seem to be in most active conversation – and it is across that bridge that the wary or curious may come and first discover the delights of Ligeti. (As if to make the invitation explicit, a recent visit to an Oxfam shop turned up a CD in which Jan Michiels sets a few short pieces each by Debussy, Janacek, Bartók and Kurtág amid the first two books of Ligeti’s Études.) The word conversation was used above to emphasise the point that, though Ligeti is a perpetual inventor of forms, his relationship with the past is active and appreciative, and only occasionally a matter of easy pastiche or programmatic irony.
Over Saturday and Sunday we were able to sample a good selection of Ligeti’s small-scale works – which include some of his most important. The Saturday lunchtime concert offered solo work for cello (William Butt playing the early two-movement sonata that shows Ligeti finding his own direction), Musica Ricercata (very interesting to hear, but does this piano work – played and partly transcribed by Dermot Dunne – take on almost too much sonority and colour on the accordion?), and three works for harpsichord (David Adams demonstrating Continuum’s complex games with clarity and blur, and the effervescence of Passacaglia ungharese and Hungarian Rock, two showpieces from the late 70s), as well as Artikulation (a short, multi-textured work for tape).
Saturday evening offered weightier, more concentrated fare. The first work, the Viola Sonata, played here by Ralf Ehlers, was the latest. All kinds of surprises and air-pockets lurk within this purposeful six-movement work. The effect can be disconcerting, as if somebody talking to you were to slide into a foreign language and back without batting an eyelid. This was followed by Six Bagatelles (an attractive – the word charming could be applied to one movement – early work for wind quintet) and the more complex and varied 10 Pieces for Wind Quintet. Why is it, though, that even the best wind quintets – and this is not a reflection on Ligeti Winds, who include some of our best players – never create quite the sense of space and depth found in their string equivalents? The concert was closed by – and what a pleasure it is to drop the name casually in mid-sentence, just as it was to hear them in mid-festival – the Arditti Quartet who gave us a typically committed and detailed performance of the first string quartet.
The Sunday afternoon concert offered only two works, but these are among the half-dozen that define the composer’s achievement. The Horn Trio (1982) marks a return to tradition, or perhaps a semi-return, because within sometimes conventional formal outlines and procedures Ligeti the inventor and poet of the new is still at work. The fourth movement (Lamento: adagio), for all the intricacy of its construction, is affectingly plangent and elegiac. When first performed, it came as a shock to some of Ligeti’s admirers. In this concert, curiously, Ian Pace’s piano and Irvine Arditti’s violin left a deeper imprint than the horn of Roger Montgomery. For the closing item of the festival, we returned to Ligeti’s heyday as an avant-garde composer with his String Quartet No. 2 (1968) played in all its vivid and startling detail by the Arditti quartet. The ideal encore would have been a second performance of the whole work after a mind- and ear-refreshing interval. But you can’t have everything.
One thing we did have was a series of talks that supplemented the music-making. The festival was fortunate in that the major Ligeti specialists who were invited – Richard Steinitz, author of György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination; Paul Griffiths, author of the first English-language book on Ligeti; and Friedemann Sallis – were not only interesting performers individually but also listened to and engaged with each other, as well as with members of the audience, in a spirit of shared enthusiasm. (It transpired that this was in fact the first festival anywhere entirely dedicated to the composer.) Ian Pace, Spanish composer Arild Suarez, festival Artistic Director Benjamin Dwyer and UCD lecturers Wolfgang Marx and Ciaran Crilly also gave papers. Some papers set Ligeti in a context, some were quite technical explorations of individual works, some were delivered better than others, but there were always nuggets of insight to be taken away or to be tested against the experience of listening to the music itself. Given that , for example, our national broadcaster is generally terrified of the free play of ideas, this was another mark in the festival’s favour.
On a small budget, two individuals – Dwyer and Gavin O’Sullivan, who shouldered a huge amount of organisational work (with assistance from UCD where the seminars were concerned) – made Remembering Ligeti a success from the point of view of attendance, performance and intellectual stimulation. Will this success give RTÉ pause for thought as we move towards our next Living Music Festival? By going with Adams in 2007 immediately after the popular success of Reich in 2006, RTÉ chose safety over imagination. With the advertising, publicity and musical resources at their disposal, we could have had a Ligeti festival that reflected his full musical personality by including a few of the major works for orchestra, that reflected Ligeti’s background and wide-ranging curiosity by including elements of folk/world music, and that reflected usefully in an Irish context on the non-confrontational attitude towards popular culture and tradition manifested by major twentieth-century Hungarian composers. With imaginative and generous programming, we can escape from the false and skewed choice between elitist obscurantism and the uninspiring prospect of Reich and Adams being followed by Pärt, and then Nyman, or perhaps Tavener, or perhaps Terry Riley or…
One of Pärt’s works means a lot to me personally, but is a three-day immersion in the Holy Minimalism of one composer good for the soul, and can such a monochromatic programme be called a festival? Quite apart from its own merits, perhaps Remembering Ligeti will also serve as a reminder of the meaning of the word festival.
Published on 1 January 2008
Barra Ó Séaghdha is a writer on cultural politics, literature and music and was previously co-editor of Graph cultural review