Uncomfortably good listening

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Corporate sponsorship plus the arts equals conservatism? Forget it. The Lucerne Festival, a 96 per cent self-funded institution, continues to give the lie to the myth. True, there are concerts with “comfortable” programmes of Beethoven, Mozart and Mahler. But these tend to be uncomfortably good, with plenty of knife-edge risk-taking. And in the thick of it, there is plenty of new music, none of which could be categorised as “easy listening”.

Intendant Michael Haefliger has persuaded Roche, the pharmaceutical company, to sponsor a series of commissions and Credit Suisse to support young artists. Pierre Boulez heads a summer academy. And houses are packed. Lucerne knows how not to underestimate its audiences. Even in the world of high finance, not everyone wants to hear only the music they know.

This year’s two artists in residence – pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard and conductor Jonathan Nott – presented a programme of music of the past four decades last Sunday. Ensemble Intercontemporain, the crack Paris-based group, joined them. A world premiere by the German composer Isabel Mundry was augmented by composer-in-residence Peter Eötvös’s Chinese Opera and two very different works by György Ligeti. It made for fascinating listening.

Mundry’s new violin concerto, Gefächerter Ort (Compartmentalised Place), is a complex work rich in association. Inspiration is drawn from Paul Cézanne’s several series of paintings of the same motif and the essay Melabu (Melancholy) by Péter Nádas, the Hungarian author, but the references are indirect. The composer’s main concerts are a teasing interest in internal tensions – between solo voice and ensemble, time and space, open and closed, under and over.

Held unison notes refract into shards of plucked dissonance; pure tones are bent into microtonal oddity; lyrical fragments are scattered like sunlight through a crystal across the ensemble. Wind instruments exhale tonelessly and whispered snatches of secrets are swapped for enigmatic utterances. A long melodic line is underpinned by a single held drone, creating an oddly neurotic sense of tension.

Twenty-six-year-old violinist Diego Tosi has plenty of prizes to his name and could presumably have a profitable career as a well-marketed Wunderkind. It is satisfying to see a player of such virtuosity opting for a life of intellectual challenge with Ensemble Intercontemporain. Mundry’s subtly fiendish score sits well under his fingers, and he knows how to make it sound as if he has been playing it for decades.

Aimard, who spent 15 years working with Ligeti, knows just what he wants when he hurls himself at his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1985-88). There is a touch of anarchic glee in his approach, just right for the work’s mixture of exuberance and silliness. Ligeti helps himself to jazz-inspired syncopations and baroque-style fugues, tossing in football whistles and bird-calls for good measure.

The concerto makes an interesting contrast to Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto for 13 Instruments (1969-70), which opened Sunday’s concert. A decade and a half earlier, Ligeti’s impish sense of humour was just as much in evidence, but the chamber concerto has a more sinuous, sensual side to it.

Eötvös’s Chinese Opera (1986) is an impressive finale, with its two antiphonal groups of instruments tuned to different pitches. Though its battery of cymbals, drums and other percussion instruments sounds vaguely Oriental, the piece is no more Chinese than it is an opera. Eötvös’s concern is more the evocation of his own environment and of the work of theatre-makers he admired.

Nott’s direction, precise and graceful, brings out Eötvös’s dramatic flair without underplaying the lyricism. Nott has a knack of keeping things neatly together and yet giving space for musical phrasing and expressive detail, and the Ensemble Intercontemporain rewards him with playing both athletic and melodious.

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