I hate to tell you this, folks, but if the president sees his shadow today we get five more years of him.
Twentieth-Century Eastern European Classical Music Roundup Part One: György Ligeti
Edition 1: String Quartets and Duets (Sony); Arditti String Quartet, 1997. These seem to come out of a fascination with the sonic properties of the violin family: how they can instantly go from violent to spectral. Ligeti wrote the first quartet in Hungary for his "bottom drawer," as it was completely unperformable under Communism; it must have been maddening, given how much the piece is about sound. Writing "first violin whacks his instrument with the bow" (in Hungarian) on a sheet of paper just isn't the same.
Edition 2: A Capella Choral Works (Sony); London Sinfonietta Voices, 1997. Creepy. There's a distinct quality to the human voice that turns unearthly when you put it through techniques like Ligeti's "micropolyphony," where you have sixteen separate lines going at once so that the individual melodic lines become indistinguishable. "Lux Aeterna" (the choral music from 2001) is on here.
Edition 4: Vocal Works (Madrigals, Mysteries, Aventures, Songs) (Sony); The King's Singers, Philharmonia Orchestra, 1997. According to Mr. Ligeti the "Nonsense Madrigals" are his attempt at tonal but non-diatonic pieces, and I give him an A plus extra credit. The harmonies sound like jazz on mescalin and suit the source texts (including the "Lobster Quadrille!") perfectly. "Mysteries of the Macabre" is a reduction from his opera, and is upsetting. I don't know about the Aventures. It might be interesting to see them performed, but they're sparse and weird and call for the vocalists to make sounds like dying jungle creatures, hence make bad background music. Much better are the closing songs, and admittedly he had to make them cute and Hungarian-folksy for the Communist culture police, but damn it, after sticking your head in the avant-garde all week sometimes you just want a kitschy ditty about a wedding.
Edition 5: Mechanical Music (Sony); Pierre Charial, Jürgen Hocker, 1997. If I give you the title of "Poéme Symphonique for 100 Metronomes," that might be all you need to hear. I listened to it once; it was sort of interesting; I don't know if I'll listen to it again. Some of the Amazon reviewers make points about chaos theory, and I actually do think Ligeti is smart enough to have insights about chaos theory beyond the banal, but that still doesn't mean I want to cook dinner to the piece. As a museum installation or something it might be neat. In any case, this record is all about the pieces for barrel organ. You know the barrel organ; it's one of those weird mechanized calliope-type instruments that plays lame arrangements of "The Blue Danube" or whatever at state fairs. But Ligeti got someone to hook it to a computer and make it do unholy things. If you like to fuck around with machines, or if you have any affection for the combined cheesy and creepy, you will like these pieces. Someone needs to make a claymation film with them. Probably someone already has.
Edition 7: Chamber Music (Sony); Saschko Gawriloff, Marie-Luise Neunecker, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Tabea Zimmermann, 1997. One of the lessons Ligeti obviously took from his early model Bartók is that if you're going to get way out there harmonically with polytonality and whatnot, a good counterweight is to put some kickass rhythms in therea strategy evident in the surprising and sublime Concerto for Violin, Horn, and Piano, which might be my favorite single Ligeti work. The wind-instrument pieces are solid, though a little overfond of the squeaky-high register that sours a lot of twelve-tone music for me. But Tabea Zimmermann, a name I could say all day, plays the sonata for solo viola. As an instrument, the viola is just right; if Goldilocks had seen a violin, viola and cello lined up next to the porridge, you know which one she would have gone for. Hell of a piece, hell of a player, and again, I could say her name all day. Tabea Zimmerman. Marry me, Tabea Zimmermann.
Études (Books 1 and 2) (Naxos); Idil Biret, 2003. They're awfully harsh on Amazon about poor Idil's playing. Not having heard the allegedly superior versions, I must say I think this one's pretty good. I don't mind a bit of harshness in the piano sound, given that it's basically being used as a percussion instrument. Ligeti has mentioned Thelonius Monk as an influence, and pieces like these seem to show the jazz idiom finally reflecting back into the old-white-European-guy classical tradition in interesting ways. Harmonically, they're all over the place; rhythmically, they swing. I don't mean literally. But they swing.