The View from the Future
The audience for contemporary classical music, once we exclude the minimalism and New Age crowd, is not a large one. Those of us who actually like the stuff must seem like masochists to the rest of the world. I remember trying to persuade a friend years ago that the music of one of the fathers of this generation, Bela Bartok, was 'inhabitable.' I chose the word carefully - that was our relation to music: we lived in it. He scowled in disbelief but several years later called me to say that I'd been right. "Good, Stu," I said, "now you're ready for Kurtag and Ligeti." I haven't stayed by the phone.
The music of Hungarians Gyorgy Kurtag and Gyorgy Ligeti, Sicilian Luciano Berio, Russians Sofia Gubaidulina and Giya Kancheli, Frenchman Pierre Boulez, Finns Aulis Sallinen and Kalevi Aho, Brits Brian Ferneyhough, Harrison Birtwhistle, and Thomas Ades - and even of somewhat older American Eliot Carter, to cream off a few of the most interesting of this musical generation, comprise a fascinating, often compelling, sometimes exhilarating universe. Like most truly new things, there is no real doorway into to most of it. You've just got to jump and let it have its way with you, or not. While you can hear its roots clearly enough - Bartok, Shostakovich, Berg, and Webern mostly - this is music whose relation to its antecedents is less interesting than what it is unto itself. These are rich, complex, exciting, often haunting and usually challenging musical minds at play in the fields of the future. Ours, if we let it be.
Over the next few months, I plan to sample some of the latest recordings of this music, pretending there are enough of you out there eager to hear the news, hoping that some of the rest of you, by listening in, may become curious enough to take an interest.
The Legiti Project II
Sony, in what will likely come to seem the tail end of the good times for classical music recording - the mid- and late 1990's - committed itself to record virtually all of contemporary Hungarian composer, Gyorgy Litgeti's musical oeuvre and got some half-dozen CD's or so into the project before business prudence stepped in and caused it to be cancelled. Fortunately for us, Teldec took it over for its New Line series; and while Teldecs' being a Warner company may cause us to curb our optimism, so far things look good. Two volumes are out and many more are planned. Details are available at the Teldec website.
The most recent release, Legeti Project II, contains some intriguing stuff. The program includes:
As Ligeti explains in his highly informative liner notes, the first three of these pieces, all written while he lived under the Communist regime in Hungary, are "static pieces." As we listen to them, it is immediately clear there is no melodic or narrative flow but rather a sense of space being explored. This is a music that is not interested in linear progression. (Ah, linear progression, the paradigms of the civilized Western mind.) Minimalism attempts something of this sort but in a mind-numbing way that only those more interested in transcendence than music enjoy. Ligeti is clearly interested in the mindful aspect of music that does not progress. Lontano, Atmospheres, and Apparitions seek to persuade us that there is a kind of knowledge that can be found in stillness.
The experience of living in Eastern Europe under Communist rule, which literally legislated a public and realist aesthetic, induced many artists there to explore the inner (and under) sides of human experience, and in the case of a musical genius like Ligeti, the results are rich, dark, and suggestive. Also, "radically dissonant and chromatic," Ligeti reminds us (He also reminds us that, of course, this unacceptably private music had to "go into the drawer," until after the occupation.).
San Francisco Polyphony is more brightly lit - higher woodwinds and brass, essentially absent from the earlier music, play a major role here. There is also a frenetic quality that feels, to be obvious about it, more urban and public. This music was composed when Ligeti was long out of Communist Hungary (He left in December, 1956). There is recognizably melodic and thematic material, even a few moments of what feel like dissonant and chromatic Richard Straus! Percussion plays a major role in this piece, providing both frisson and foundation and cutting through what often borders on cacophonic chaos.
The "Romanian Concerto," earliest piece on the program, comes as a bit of a 'throw-back' after what precedes it. Hints of Brahms, Dvorak, and Romanian dance music abound. Drawing on folk songs but like Bartok and Kodaly before him, transforming them into his own music, Ligeti gives us a glimpse of the musical state of mind he was in before the Russian occupation began truly to affect him. But, as he tells us, even the natural dissonance of the original folk music struck the authorities as troubling!
This CD, both musically and sonically (Teldec recordings are generally among the very best) is a fine introduction to the music of Ligeti, who this year turns 79. I urge you to look into this and Ligeti Project I, which came out last year - and to track down the volumes in the Sony series before some shortsighted Sony executive decides to delete them from the catalog.
Sound Quality: 98