When Ligeti saw eye-to-eye with Brahms


The Daily Telegraph - Review - - BOOKS - By Ivan Hewett

An­dré Caza­let, Guy Co­men­tale, Cyril Huvé Cal­liope

Here is some­thing un­usual: two mas­ter­pieces in the same medium, writ­ten nearly 120 years apart, the later work a homage to the ear­lier. One is the 1865 Horn Trio by Jo­hannes Brahms. The other is the Horn Trio by the Hun­gar­ian post-war mod­ernist, György Ligeti.

Brahms’s trio is es­pe­cially in­tense in its nos­tal­gia and melan­choly, even by his stan­dards. The sun­set­glow horn melody at the be­gin­ning seems to come from some great dis­tance, and it will come as no sur­prise to learn that it came to his ear while he was walk­ing in the Black For­est. The emo­tional heart of the piece is in the som­bre slow move­ment, writ­ten in mem­ory of his mother.

Ligeti’s 1982 trio came af­ter a fal­low pe­riod, and caused a sen­sa­tion, as he seemed to be turn­ing his back on the fas­tid­i­ously sen­su­ous play of pure sound that made him fa­mous, to reem­brace melody, har­mony and cul­tural ref­er­ence. It must be ad­mit­ted that Ligeti’s al­lu­sions to Brahms’s great piece are very oblique. He never quotes or even refers to Brahms, but there’s a per­vad­ing sense of the Ger­man ro­man­tic for­est, thanks to the al­lu­sion to the fa­mous “horn-call” in Beethoven’s piano sonata “Les Adieux”. An air of Brahms-like nos­tal­gia suf­fuses the fi­nal “La­mento”.

This record­ing of both trios stands out from the crowd for the qual­ity of its sound, the ex­traor­di­nary sub­tlety of the play­ing, and the fact that when it was first is­sued in 1992 it was warmly praised by Ligeti him­self, who was no­to­ri­ously hard to please. The play­ers are as re­spon­sive to the mas­sive ex­u­ber­ance of Brahms’s trio as they are to its melan­choly. In Ligeti’s trio they cre­ate the needle­point ex­act­ness his mu­sic needs, and sum­mon a huge rhyth­mic en­ergy in the sec­ond move­ment, where ref­er­ences to Balkan dance and Cen­tral African drum­ming are mixed in a kind of hy­per-re­fined “world mu­sic”. The fi­nal move­ment at­tains a huge de­spair­ing weight.

Of­ten discs con­tain­ing one clas­sic and one mod­ern work leave a sense that the later work stands in the clas­sic’s shadow. Here both pieces look each other straight in the eye.

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