Ligeti, Bartok and Haydn choral works at the Barbican review ****

London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus, Francois-Xavier Roth (conductor), Camilla Tilling, Adele Charvet, Julien Behr, Christopher Purves, William Thomas

Barbican Hall, 11th November 2018

  • Gyorgy Ligeti – Lontano
  • Bela Bartok – Cantata profana
  • Haydn – Nelson Mass

Three composers I like. Three works I did not know. A slightly earlier start. A fine end to a fine day.

When I say I don’t know Liget’s Lontano that isn’t strictly true. In fact, even if you are a Ligeti virgin, there is a fair chance you have heard Lontano. For this is the music famously used to signify Jack Nicholson’s descent into full-on barking psychomania in The Shining film. Lontano, along with Atmospheres, is therefore still probably Ligeti’s most famous work, even though, in the five decades that followed their composition, GL went on to explore many other styles and musical ideas. 

Lontano, in Italian, means “far away” or “distant” as a performance instruction which about sums it up. For this is as “other worldly” as it gets, from a composer synonymous with the term. It is built up from layers of very quiet sound, initially cellos and flutes, from the smallish orchestra. These lines move in different tempos and to different rhythms but they combine, legato, to create Ligeti’s trademark micropolyphony. The crystallisation of these sounds brings out sustained, but shifting, harmonies that are very different from traditional or atonal composition but the overall effect is ravishing. And something for which horror and sci-fi film composers ever since should be eternally grateful. It is eerie, mysterious but utterly compelling. Take the bit where the high violins, barely audible, pulse against the throb of the low brass and wind. Given the score doesn’t really offer any metre as such Francois-Xavier Roth could only really prompt the orchestra. No matter. All the LSO had to do was trust Ligeti’s ear and F-XR’s experience with the piece. How GL knew all of his innovations, not just in these micropolyphonic pieces, would work is an utter mystery to me. Genius.

It was performed by the National Youth Orchestra at this years Proms so its a fairly frequent concert hall visitor. Don’t let it pass you by. 

Bartok’s Cantata profana, which was published in 1930, rarely gets an outing. Lasting only 20 minutes yet still requiring a full chorus and orchestra as well as a bass, (here William Thomas standing in for the indisposed Matthew Rose), and a very challenging high tenor part which pushed Julien Behr close to his limit. It is based on a slightly creepy, coming of age, folk ballad about nine brothers who go out hunting, turn into stags, (which I hope is a rare occurrence even in Transylvania), and then refuse to come home when Father asks them. Heady stuff which Bartok pitches somewhere between his more overtly derived folk driven orchestration and the lusher sound-world of his earlier stage works. The LS Chorus seemed entirely at home with the tricky Hungarian idiom of the text and the awkward contrapuntal textures of Bartok’s score, which divides into 8 parts in the second of the three movements..

That’s the thing with Bartok. It normally takes a few listens for me to get the gist of his music. Like Prokofiev I know there is something there worth working on but it doesn’t always reel me in immediately. I can’t always grasp the line and architecture of the whole work but the rhythms and melodies individually are often arresting. I have more work to do on the popular orchestral pieces, am close to cracking the string quartets, think the solo piano collections are fascinating and would love to see Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. The piano concertos and the rest of his chamber music are bit of mystery. Whether Cantata profana on this listening will be added to the to do list is a moot point. 

As an aside if you want a quick burst of Romanian folk filtered through an orchestral lens, look no further than the Concert Romanesc. By none other than Ligeti. A perfect pastiche of a C19 nationalist Romantic tribute. It is really hard to believe this is the same composer as Lontano. 

Not knowing the Nelson Mass, as with any Haydn piece, is no handicap. It’s a mass, sung in Latin, so that’s the text nailed down, it is a relatively small orchestra, (just 4 double basses in the strings, trumpets, timpani and a small pipe-organ here played by Bernard Robertson), and, as usual, Papa keeps his textures homophonic and easy to follow. The Gloria ends with a mighty fugue and the Credo kicks off with an extended canon. What’s not to like? That is not to say it isn’t without drama, the LS Chorus letting fly in the Kyrie and Gloria. Julien Behr was persuasive, as was replacement bass, the ever excellent Christopher Purves. Mozart specialist Camilla Tilling’s soprano lost a little of its silky subtlety though newcomer Adele Charvet’s mezzo more than held its own. Even so there might have been a case for reigning in the 130 strong Chorus a little to offer a little light and shade. 

The Nelson Mass is the third of six that Haydn composed between 1796 and 1802, appearing just after The Creation in 1798. He titled it Missa in Angustiis, “Mass in difficult circumstances”, a reference to Napoleon’s march across Europe. There is a martial quality about some of the music, in the Kyrie and Benedictus for example, but, as usual Haydn can’t suppress his jolly nature throughout. As it happens a few days before its first performance Admiral Nelson (there he is above) secured a famous victory against the French fleet at Aboukir. A couple of years later Nelson went to visit the Esterhazy court and this was performed for him; hence the nickname. 

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