December 2, 2010 6:14 pm

Britten Sinfonia, Queen Elizabeth Hall

The soprano enters, dressed in a short black leather dress, fishnet stockings and platform heels. With barely time for applause, she throws herself headlong into a stream of nonsense text, flinging out top notes as high as a kettle whistle while conducting the orchestra and behaving like a woman possessed. It is quite a tour de force.

This could only be one composer. Gyorgy Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre has been delighting and scandalising audiences since its premiere in 1978 and three of its short arias were subsequently arranged by Elgar Howarth to form a nine-minute concert piece called Mysteries of the Macabre. The Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan has made it her own. And how: strutting the stage in her titillating outfit, she embodies the sadomasochistic spirit of the opera to perfection, whipping herself and the orchestra into a near frenzy of musical extremism. It is no surprise that she is being sought after to perform this virtuoso miniature around the world. In the refined world of the concert hall, it explodes like a stink bomb – doubtless just what Ligeti had in mind.

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Nothing else in the Britten Sinfonia’s concert could match it, though the programme had been put together by somebody with a sense of humour. Even the more innocuous items tended to hit bizarre corners, where the music suddenly hit higher or lower or stranger extremes than anybody could have expected.

Weber’s Concertino for Horn and Orchestra might start as a typical small concerto of romantic hues, but it soon turns tricky for the soloist, sending the player deep down into his boots for the lowest notes and at one point asking for four notes to be hummed and played at the same time. Richard Watkins was the dexterous horn soloist here.

Rossini’s Overture to Il Signor Bruschino is the one that has the second violins tapping their bows on their instruments and even Ligeti’s early Concert Românesc, which has its roots in simple, folk-inspired music, ends by disappearing into the ether of violin harmonics. The Britten Sinfonia conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth gave spirited, if sometimes untidy, performances throughout. (

3 star rating
)

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