26. September 2014

A compact jewel of a piece: Ligeti’s Hamburg Concerto

I’d like to write about my recent experience playing Ligeti’s Hamburg Concerto, which I had the privilege to perform last week (Sep. 19) for the opening concert of the Warsaw Autumn International Festival of Contemporary Music.

It was a privilege for many reasons; not only was it the opening concert of the festival, but also the Polish premiere of one of the most important, highly regarded, wonderfully bizarre and extremely cool pieces ever written for the horn.

I mean really cool – a concerto played on two different horns, a valveless natural horn and a modern instrument, with 4 more natural horns in the ensemble, all sorts of fun percussion (can you say bongos?!?) and Bassett horns – two of them!

Ligeti uses all these different instruments (in addition to a standard ensemble instrumentation) to explore Spectralism and just intonation, fusing and contrasting with the realm of „normal“ tempered intonation. He takes the resulting palette of colors and either spreads them Gerhard Richter-like in individual streams and layers throughout the ensemble, each spectral overtone clear and bright – or he mixes it all up in a groovy Hungarian swing. It’s a compact jewel of a piece; 7 vignette movements, played from beginning to end in just 15 minutes. Beautiful, funky, strange and otherworldly – and some of the most notoriously difficult 15 minutes ever written for the horn.

After the concert, I was asked what I would say if a young composer presented the piece to me during one of our Composer Collider workshops. To be honest, I probably would have told that reckless young composer that he or she was crazy!

The piece covers 4 octaves; none of the extremely fast technical passages are played using fingerings, only overtone partials; the spectral movements creep slowly upwards into the stratosphere at pianissimo; the natural horn licks continuously toy with the most fragile and unstable partials; the final solo line, after wild fortissimo acrobatics, is a pianissimo cantus firmus in the 4th octave, with the highest note of the piece suddenly exposed, standing alone in the penultimate solo gesture of the concerto…and then comes the last movement! The 4 natural horns, after a wild workout, play a slow choral, and with the added stress and resistance of flutter tongue and mutes, painfully climb their way back into the extreme high range, ending the piece with 10 seconds of screaming, fluttering, fortississimo overtone clusters. Ridiculous and impossible!

Thanks goodness Ligeti knew better, leaving us – in one of his final works – a true masterpiece of spectral wonder and chutzpah.

Christine Chapman