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The dip that often affects composers’ reputations in the aftermath of death has yet to hit György Ligeti. The eccentric Hungarian, who garnered one of the biggest reputations of the late 20th-century avant-garde, died only last summer, so we are still at the stage of tributes, rather than reassessments. And yet this London Sinfonietta programme inevitably threw up questions about the long-term viability of his oeuvre.
Listening to Ramifications for 12-voice string orchestra, you couldn’t doubt Ligeti’s experimental verve or microscopic command of form and texture: the music seemed to move in swarms of subtly shaped and infinitely malleable particles, like flocks of birds that swoop and surf the air in ever-changing formations. It sounds as futuristic today as it must have when new at the height of the heady 1960s. Melodien from 1971, by contrast, was a trip down memory lane, the ideas emerging more obviously, the instrumental palette more colourful, the argument altogether more engaging – as if Ligeti, by successfully masking his musical processes, had ended up sounding more conventional.
You could argue a case for the survival of either of these pieces, less so for the Piano Concerto from the late 1980s, which not even a soloist of Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s wit could rescue from its self-absorbed indulgences. Maybe it’s time Ligeti’s admirers realised that not everything he wrote was a masterpiece.
Ligeti’s music, immaculately conducted by George Benjamin, was worlds away from the two works with which it formed an uneasy contrast. The soprano line of Alexander Goehr’s Behold the Sun (1982) sounded like a prototype for Ariel in Adès’s The Tempest – Goehr did, after all, teach the younger composer – but it was hard to relate the medieval hellfire text to such arid music. Claire Booth was the equally brilliant soloist in Oliver Knussen’s Requiem, a new song-cycle written in memory of his late wife. This intimate reverie has nothing mawkish about it: very pretty, very winsome. We ought to be hearing much more of Knussen’s music.
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