The Music of Sound, Apotheosis of the Piano
By Janos Gereben
Recession be damned: for the second week, new, complex, "heavy" music
and Ravel have filled the 2,743-seat Davies Hall.
Last week, it was Gubaidulina's Second Violin Concerto and Ravel's
"Valses nobles et sentimentales"; tonight, the Ligeti Requiem and the
Ravel G Major Piano Concerto - San Francisco's "American Idol" winners!
Standing Richard Rodgers on his head, Gyorgy Ligeti's unique, extraordinary
1997 revision of the Requiem celebrates more the music of sound than the
other way around.
Ragnar Bohlin's Symphony Chorus, the orchestra under Michael Tilson
Thomas' direction went from triumph to triumph in performing the
"unperformable" - ominous murmurs at the treshhold of the audible, high
notes forcing the first sopranos into falsetto, the densest of harmonies,
all kinds of polyphonies, "moving around in half- and whole-tone steps,
mixed in a way so that you easily get lost, climbing up and down in
quintuplets, six-, seven- and even 9-tuplets"... for starters, in
And yet and yet... this is not an exercise, no thumbing a nose at the
audience; to the contrary: a great, gripping work, entirely appropriate
to and illuminating four sections of the Requiem: Introitus, Kyrie, De
die judicii sequentia (from Dies Irae), and Lacrimosa. From the super-quiet
early portions the music escalates into what Ligeti himself has called
a "hysterical and hyperdramatic" sound, but here again, it's not empty
effect or posing, but great dramatic music... or, rather sound.
Hannah Holgersson was the adequate soprano soloist, Annika Hudak the
superb mezzo. This was the San Francisco premiere for the Requiem and
the reception was warm and loud.
Bohlin himself conducted the program-opening "Ligeti warm-up piece,"
Gabrieli's circa 1585 "In ecclesiis," part of the Symphony Chorus on the
stage and the rest flanking the audience on the two outside aisles. The
polychoral/polyphonic sound enveloped and embraced the audience.
It would be good to believe that the promise of the Ligeti (and perhaps
the program-closing 1854 Liszt "Tasso," with all its bluster, filled the
hall, but that was not the case. (The previous week's full house for
Gubaidulina is still a mystery.) The attraction was the Queen - no Goddess
- of Piano, and she fulfilled even the wildest expectations.
Besides having heard the Ravel Concerto umpteen times, this was my fourth
live performance with Martha Argerich, and yet I'd swear I never heard
the work before. Clear, singing, effortless, "natural" have always
described Argerich's playing, but what takes her into the hyperspace of
pianists is the way she invents the music - seemingly - as she goes
Steely fingers in the opening Allegramente, fragile and yet secure poetry
in the Adagio, and the throwaway bravura in the Presto would make anyone
a great pianist; the ephemeral extra for Argerich is the utter innocence
of it all - no posing, no calculation, no playing for effect: it is what
it is, and it is all thrillingly authentic and beautiful.
Inspiring orchestra and audience alike, Argerich conjured instrumental
solos of unprecedented excellence from her hero-worshipper colleagues.
Woodwinds and brass have never been better. Until she performs the
concerto again, this will be the greatest recording of it ever.
There were six curtain calls, and what MTT termed an unprecedented reprise
of the last movement (he must have meant during his 14 years here; in
the good old times, repeats were given often). Would that but Argerich
played the whole concerto again, the orchestra dispensing with "Tasso"
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