BBC Proms reviews

Prom 36 review – celebrating György Ligeti’s 100th anniversary with élan

11 August 2023

Some first-rate performances of György Ligeti and Richard Strauss from London Philharmonic Orchestra and choir, Edvard Grieg Kor and Royal Northern College of Music Chamber Choir under Edward Gardner.

Prom 36

LPO, LPO Choir, Edvard Grieg Kor, RNCM Chamber Choir, Jennifer France, Clare Presland & Edward Gardner (Photo: Mark Allan)

Although billed as a Prom of music from Kubrick’s classic 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, and part of this year’s celebration of the centenary of Ligeti’s birth, topically, sections of some of the music performed (Ligeti’s Requiem and Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra) also appear in the current exploding pink phenomenon that is Barbie. The mid-20th century (marked, among other things, by Barbie’s appearance on the market) was the age of musical experimentation; the door had already been opened by the development of Serialism early in the century, and breaking the rules was the name of the game by a whole class full of enfants terribles whose ringleaders included Stockhausen, Berio, Penderecki and, of course, Ligeti.

Ligeti’s 1963–65 Requiem, although a challenging atonal listen, is a hugely atmospheric work. Scored for large orchestral forces as well as large chorus and two soloists, it is the voices (naturally, for a setting of text) that predominate, and the instruments, while not always quiet, are used sparingly – primarily for the timbres they produce, rather than any kind of ‘accompaniment’. The atmosphere, though, is not a pleasant one; there is none of the comfort, here, that’s found in the Romantic settings of Verdi or Fauré: it summons cold, indifferent judgment interspersed with moments of terror.

The forces under Edward Gardner’s meticulous direction on Friday achieved all that Ligeti required, to give a seminal performance of the work, and conjure exactly the right sense of disturbance in the listener. The opening, unsychronised rumble of basses and trombones brought to the ‘Introitus’ the unease of distant thunder (although perhaps a few more bassi profundi would have added to the heft of the lower vocal notes), the higher voices taking over to add, with their constantly shifting note clusters, further agitation. The quiet dynamic of the horns and low trumpets at the opening of the ‘Kyrie’ was magical, and Gardner’s control of the subsequent crescendo carefully judged. The true terror, though occurred in ‘De Die Judicii Sequentia’ (‘Dies Irae’), and the shouted chorus and overlapping trombone passages at the opening were (in the true sense of the word) awesome. Jennifer France (soprano) and Clare Presland (mezzo) came into their own in this movement to give a pair of first-rate performances; Presland’s material requires her to pluck panicked notes from nowhere, a feat she managed with consummate professionalism; these ‘tuned squawks’ were perfectly complemented by the long high notes of laser-like purity produced by France. The quiet, sinister dynamic of the ‘Lacrimosa’ was keenly judged, the odd little passage for harpsichord providing just the right degree of spookiness. The performance was marred only by the cheery ringtone of a mobile phone sounding in the profound silence after the pianissimo close – a moment of bathos that Ligeti might have embraced, but which the rest of us did not.

“Ligeti’s 1963–65 Requiem… is a hugely atmospheric work”

Prom 36

Jennifer France & Clare Presland (Photo: Mark Allan)

Ligeti’s a cappella Lux aeterna is technically a separate work but as it is also a traditional movement in a Requiem, it was only right that it should be performed in the same concert. A semi-chorus, situated in the Royal Albert Hall’s gallery delivered an impeccable account, pinging Ligeti’s chilly note clusters with astonishing accuracy.

‘Einleitung: Sonnenaufgang’, the first 22 bars of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra are among the most well known passages of ‘classical’ music, and the LPO, now in a mood to get some late Romantic material between their teeth, brought to it all the drama that you could want, without it sounding hackneyed. The other 33 minutes of Strauss’ early ‘tone poem’, though, are utterly lovely. The work is full of lush chromatic swerves, moments of tension and bewilderment, which eventually give way to ‘Das Tanzlied’, a full on grand bal waltz – perhaps Strauss’ nod to his famous (unrelated) Viennese namesakes. Gardner was in his element with this opulent material, and coaxed the orchestra into bringing every scintilla of nuance to this work of shifting moods, controlling tempo, dynamic and texture with fluid but commanding gestures to bring us a sensuously warm string sound, and bright, clear woodwinds. Charming vignettes followed one after the other, each exactly judged for texture and mood: a passage of quiet double basses and cellos out of which peeked a solo bassoon; some busy, uncomfortable brass; a mysterious collation of bass clarinet, bassoons, horns and tubas; the echoing of horns and violins; and, of course, the superbly handled build into that waltz, in which the previously menacing horns became the quintessence of brash jollity.

• Prom 36 can be audio streamed from BBC Sounds

• Details of the 2023 BBC Proms season can be found here.

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