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Ligeti in context: a superb centenary tribute

Bachtrack, Phil Parker

When Ensemble 360’s oboist Adrian Wilson prefaced this performance of György Ligeti’s Ten Pieces for Wind Quintet by describing it as “notorious” it might have given the faint-hearted in the audience pause for thought, but it formed a fitting climax to this wide-ranging programme of largely Hungarian music shaped around the celebration of Ligeti’s birth 100 years ago.

The work itself is an extraordinary exploration of wind techniques, challenging in places for sure – the high-pitched squeals of piccolo, oboe and clarinet in the penultimate movement, marked sostenuto, stridente, being the most obvious case in point…

This felt like virtuosity put to the best of uses in a showcase of middle-period Ligeti, which mixed the cerebral and the comic in equal measure.

The playing was exceptional here, not just from the three permanent members of Ensemble 360, but also from guests Eilidh Gillespie, recently appointed Principal Flute of Scottish Opera, and Flo Plane, bassoonist on Music in the Round’s Bridge Scheme for young musicians (and not unrelated to Ensemble 360’s clarinettist, Robert Plane!).

The other Ligeti pieces in the programme were three of the challenging Études for Piano, which Ligeti wrote between 1985 and 2001.

Tim Horton is clearly in love with this music. He introduced the pieces with his customary informal but authoritative insights.

He confessed that the pieces he played – En Suspens, Der Zauberlehrling and Arc-en-ciel – were among the easiest of the 18 studies, but they still demanded, and received, precision and clarity of execution, notably in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice middle movement with its dazzling flurry of staccato accents, but also in the jazz-influenced final piece which, as directed, was played with swing.

The other Hungarians on the programme were a little more off the beaten track. Antal Doráti’s name, to be sure, is well known, given his extensive conducting career, but his Duo Concertante for Oboe and Piano (1983) shows his engagement with Hungarian folk music, a kind of Lisztian Hungarian Rhapsody employing the traditional form of the verbunkos, or recruiting dance. The opening slow section’s winding, sinuous lines give way to the flurry of semiquavers of the friss section that concludes the work. Wilson showed impressive dexterity, not to mention breath control, supported reliably by Horton.

Ferenc Farkas was Ligeti’s teacher in post-war Budapest. His Antique Hungarian Dances from the 17th century felt a little out of place in this programme, being touched by hardly any of the experimentalism that characterised Ligeti’s generation.

The music exists in a large number of arrangements, but this wind quintet version offered a serene and graceful interlude, after the fashion of Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, and it was played with eloquence and charm.

The odd man out in this programme was Witold Lutosławski, most definitely not Hungarian, and, in his Dance Preludes, played here in its original version for clarinet and piano, paying homage to the dance rhythms of his native Poland. Lutosławski himself described its composition in 1954 as his “farewell to folk music”. The melodies themselves are not traditional, but the five movements are underpinned by highly syncopated dance rhythms. It’s a joyous piece and Robert Plane, ably supported again by Horton, exploited its vitality and propulsive energy to the full.

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