Day three of the 2011 Aldeburgh festival brought a multifaceted celebration of Ligeti, including performances and talks and his work paired with other composers. My first concert was the mid-afternoon Homage to Ligeti. What had brought me was not primarily Ligeti, but rather Messiaen's Appel interstellaire from his masterpiece Des Canyons aux etoiles. It's a magnificent piece for solo horn, echoing and glistening. Far more than, say, Holst's Planets, it captures both the vast emptiness of space and its punctuation with moments extraordinary beauty. Sadly Marie-Luise Neunecker's performance failed to move me. In part this was because there seemed to be less empty space than there ought to be, in part because, despite the fine acoustic of the Britten Studio, it didn't seem to echo and resonate as wonderfully as in Edinburgh's Usher Hall. A final problem was that, shorn of Messiaen's epic and eclectic orchestration in the other movements, it lost its context and was less remarkable as a result. Without those other eighty minutes it was surely bound to be something of an unsatisfactory bleeding chunk.
The horn caused me some problems at the start of Ligeti's Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano as well. The programme note went into some detail about Ligeti having scored it for a natural horn, yet Neunecker didn't use one. No explanation was forthcoming, but I for one would have liked to know if and how much of a difference it made. As a piece, it didn't really grab me, the first time I can say that of Ligeti. It didn't seem either so interestingly textured or as compelling as the other (mainly orchestral) Ligeti I've come across. I also missed violinist Pekka Kuusisto's charming style of introduction, particularly as he struggled to arrange the many taped-together pieces of his part.
The seven Ligeti Etudes that came after the interval were another matter altogether. Here, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich shared the keyboard duties, the latter providing a particularly commanding and impressive technical display, though Aimard was excellent too. These were beautiful and fascinating miniatures: one was a dazzle of intricate fingerwork, another had a lyric beauty, the third an etherial sparkle. The final study, a chasing increase of intensity (aptly titled The Devil's Staircase) was magnificent.
After this, the finale was rather disappointing and personally I feel the decision to switch the order served gimmickry rather than art. Certainly Conlon Nancarrow's studies for player piano are interesting from a technical, mechanical and even intellectual standpoint. Jurgen Hocker introduced the instrument and each piece, providing some interesting background, as well as changing the rolls that commanded the machine. Nancarrow composed directly onto these rolls in a time-consuming process of punching out the holes on each of the eighty-eight tracks, one for each key. Rather than simply automating music, he composed works which a human couldn't play, both in terms of reach and concurrent key strikes, but also in the rapidity of some of the pieces. All of which, as I say, was very fascinating. The trouble was that it was also utterly devoid of soul, and since that's what makes art and especially music for me, I couldn't really see the point. Hocker read quotes from Ligeti in which he ranked Nancarrow as the greatest composer of the twentieth century. Leaving aside my dislike for such descriptions, I could see little evidence. He also compared him to Bach. In some respects, I can see the argument: the Well-Tempered Klavier probed the instrument to its limits, demonstrating Bach's tuning system, and similarly Nancarrow explores the furthest reaches of the player piano. Yet his studies, despite their cleverness, intricacy and impressive technological display, as keys flashed like christmas tree lights, did not come close to the emotional depth of Bach's masterpiece. That said, some pieces, such as Flamenco Study or Canon X (two canons moving in oposite directions and speeds before crossing over) were impressive and enjoyable and I'm glad to have heard them.
I just wouldn't be in any rush to hear them again. It seemed to be music for a museum. If next year the same recital were given, it would be musically identical, whereas even the same keyboardist playing the Well-Tempered a year apart would differ; there is room for interpretation. Perhaps there is a future for these works as multi-tracked pieces, overlaid by a live performance, but even here I'm not convinced. In the following concert Aimard and Stefanovich played an arrangement of a study for two pianos and it still felt dull and mechanical.
That subsequent concert was Aimard's Collage-Montage. This is something I think has worked wonderfully when I've seen it before, as he weaves disparate threads together to illustrate connections between diverse pieces. Certainly the Britten Studio was set up to heighten the atmosphere as much as possible, as the two pianos for the opening piece were tightly lit, at opposite sides of the stage, the lids angled into the walls. As Aimard and Stefanovich played Peter Eötvös's Kosmos, the sound echoed and filled the room magically. Indeed, far more successfully than the Messiaen in the earlier concert.
Yet here the similarities with past efforts ended and Aimard made no effort to link the pieces. This might have been okay if the programme note had filled this gap, but it didn't; indeed, it didn't even exist! Now, it seems the link was games, but for those unaware that this is how Kurtág's Játékok translates, I'm not sure how this would have been apparent, save for the final few pieces, subtitled various games played on the following works.
The connection, if this is what it was, wasn't always obvious. Certainly I couldn't see it with the Eötvös. Ligeti's Three Pieces for Two Pianos had it, especially in the playful nature of the competition between the pianists in the opening one. Yet as the programme wore on, a longish slog at nearly ninety minutes without break, the lack of the linking speeches became increasingly frustrating, the more so as they were so interesting last time and also in light of yesterday's fine examples.
Aimard and Stefanovich were then joined by percussionist Daniel Ciampolini for a series of more playful things. Steve Reich can be extraordinary, see Different Trains, yet his Clapping Music isn't much to write home about and felt rather reminiscent of an activity in a school music class. The games that followed, including Ligeti's Poeme Symphonique, rearranged for three people striking just a couple of piano keys, were often great fun, and Ciampolini was an incredible talent. Yet who had done these arrangements, and what might Ligeti or Nancarrow have thought of them? Alas, we were not to know.