Ligeti’s wonderful and wacky concerto steals the show

CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★

On his visit to Count Dracula, Jonathan Harker is startled by the eerie sound of howling wolves outside the castle. Transylvania’s most famous son responds with the immortal line: “Listen to them—the children of the night. What music they make!” What is disturbing and disorientating to Harker is mellifluous to the vampire. I was reminded of these differing responses when listening to a brilliant performance of the violin concerto by Transylvania’s second most famous son – the composer György Ligeti. In a welcome and entertaining short introduction to the work the bright young Australian conductor Nicholas Carter said finding parts of it funny and frightening were both apt responses. Soloist Carolin Widmann encompassed all its dazzlingly eclectic array of styles, allusions and parodies. The Praeludium has the players – few strings, lots of percussion – in a hesitating start like Edgar Varese’s leg-pull ‘Tuning Up’, before launching headlong into the Vivacissimo luminoso first movement. The great luthier Guadagnini, who made Widmann’s violin in 1782, would have been bemused at the sounds Ligeti demanded here and in the finale’s violent turbocharged pizzicati but at home with the Bach-like serene beauties of the Choral and Passacaglia, played “lento intenso” as Ligeti wanted. His sly humour emerged not only in the eccentric orchestration – two swanee whistles and four ocarinas – but in the slapstick and brass raspberry that capped Widmann’s sublime ascending Appassionato peroration. The CBSO players clearly enjoyed their excursion into Ligeti’s phantasmagoric musical realm.

Joyous and too seldom heard,” was Carter’s spot-on judgement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 96 in D major performed with engaging energy whether swaggering, lilting or dancing on its winning way. The Andante was heavenly with delightful solo cameos from the wind players and the first violin – lovely to see Zoë Beyers returning as guest leader. Carter had divided the fiddles left-and-right which increased orchestral clarity and entertainment in watching the second fiddles’ alliances, separations and rapprochements with the firsts and the violas. That formation also paid dividends in Brahms’ third symphony – the accusation that his orchestration is thick and occluded may stem from bunching the fiddles on the left.Carter’s interpretation was strongest in the symphony’s lyrical elements: the heroic part – Richter called it Brahms’s ‘Eroica’ – was a trifle stodgy. The Andante’s gentle romanticism here had a lovely autumnal glow and the symphony’s quiet ending sounded fulfilling rather than the anti-climax it can be.

Norman Stinchcombe

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