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György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Lontano (1967) [11:37]
Tristan MURAIL (b. 1947)
Le désenchantement du monde (2011/2012) [30:54]
George BENJAMIN (b. 1960)
Palimpsests (1998-2002) [19:42]
Pierre-Laurant Aimard (piano: Murail)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/George Benjamin
rec. live, 2-4 May 2012, Herkulessaal der Rezidenz, Munich, Germany
NEOS 11422 [62:17]

Other than being a record of a concert of contemporary music there is no apparent ‘theme’ or particular reason given for putting this programme in front of us, something which seems quite unusual these days. There is of course no real reason why such coathangers should be needed, but we reviewers get used to having such things as a starting point with which to spar before getting on with core business.

Never mind. With the occasional cough, what we have here are three significant works, some more contemporary than others in the strict sense of the word, but all in that modern idiom which has proven so divisive and seems destined so to remain. The ‘classic’ amongst these is Ligeti’s Lontano, now having almost reached the venerable age of 60 since it was penned. Ligeti’s “sound-surface” compositional style was well established by 1967, but even given this distinctive character one can perceive remnants of Romanticism given the perspective of time. Lontano doesn’t have quite the same electric tensions and resolutions of many of his other works of the period, and if you take the last few pages of the score from about 8:30 and the beauty of the final bars then it’s not too far a stretch to hear hints perhaps of Richard Strauss or Mahler. Ligeti would probably hate me for saying it, and I by no means intend to take away the boundary-breaking achievement of this work, but I do offer it as an alternative way of listening – something I also seem to have acquired since becoming more familiar with Romantic repertoire after my more extreme youthful tastes of Baroque to contemporary with not much in between.

Lontano has been recorded several times, one of these being part of the Teldec Ligeti Edition (review) with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Nott. Identical in timing to the last second there isn’t a huge amount to chose between these versions, though Nott’s gives a more overtly impassioned impression in places, the more closely recorded strings tearing up the air around them where Benjamin’s sections blend with greater unity.

Tristan Murail was studying in Messiaen’s composition class at the Paris Conservatory in the same year Ligeti wrote Lontano, and there is something of his teacher’s sonorities in the piano/large orchestra setting for Les désenchantement du monde or ‘The Demystification of the World’, the title of which in turn would seem to stray far beyond Messiaen’s world of the mysterious Catholic religion but also seems still to be held somewhat in its thrall. Murail’s association with ‘Spectral Music’ puts him in the same frame as Gérard Grisey, but this is an entirely different expressive space when compared to Les espaces acoustiques. Fronted by the remarkable Pierre-Laurent Aimard, there is mention of Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto and Sonata in B minor as reference points, and with that typically luminous French feel of clarity and transparency in the orchestration this is another work which wears its Romanticism tucked not too far up its sleeve. Spectral Music may have become a thing of the past for Murail, but its presence is more than just a sparkling residue, with sometimes fleeting but always recurring moments of harmonic colour that glint though a constant expressive stream, right down to the final echo of that remarkable coda in the final minutes. This stream flows with atmospheric warmth through its lovely slow sections, and with restless intensity through its outer ‘movements’ – the whole being written in a single extended but deeply coherent span.
George Benjamin’s associations with Paris are also strong, having studied with Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod in the 1970s. He is also a fine conductor, and directs his own Palimpsests I & II for this recording. Palimsest I was composed to mark Pierre Boulez’s 75th birthday, the darker Palimpsest II becoming a ‘second movement’. The intertwining clarinets of the opening call Stravinsky to mind, but orchestral hammer-blows soon disperse this ghostly presence. Material is transformed and overlapped, overwhelmed at times, and delivered with a striking, almost funereal momentum. The word ‘palimpsest’ refers to manuscripts, often ancient writings on vellum that had been scraped off and overwritten to create layers with hidden meaning. The booklet notes also refer to its more recent use as a metaphorical word for “the multidimensional nature of cultural phenomena, intertextuality and the anchoring of artistic processes in traditions.” Busy interjections and powerful gestures exist alongside and above fragile actions that emerge at moments of repose, and the polyphony of the opening bars is a golden thread that runs through the entire work in one form or another, at times interrupted or silent, but always existing as a kind of mental passacaglia.

This is a very fine set of works and an entirely convincing performance all-round. The live recording is very good, with plenty of detail and only a very few extraneous noises. In our 21st century world one can argue that these creations, even the more recent ones, are heavyweight dinosaurs that belong in the avant-garde festival havens of Donaueschingen and the like. We also need to remind ourselves that J.S. Bach was once considered a heavyweight dinosaur.

Dominy Clements

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank



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