Sound and Sensibility: Britten, Bach, and Ligeti, performed by violoncellist Miklos Perenyi

By Daniel Garrett

Miklos Perenyi, Britten, Bach, Ligeti
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Production coordinator: Guido Gorna
Executive Producer: Manfred Eicher
ECM Records, 2012

Listening to the music of Benjamin Britten, as performed by Miklos Perenyi, it is impossible not to think that the experience, the perception of the quality of sound, is far from the grimy smallness of pedestrian life. Miklos Perenyi is a Hungarian musician of the violoncello, a large violin instrument held between the knees and ranging over four octaves, distinguished by its fullness of sound. Other players of the instrument have included Jacqueline Du Pre, Leonard Rose, Mstislav Rostropovich, and, of course Pablo Casals, who wrote for it. Miklos Perenyi began playing the cello at five, gave his first concert at nine, and subsequently impressed Pablo Casals at an international competition; and Perenyi, a composer and professor, as well as the winner of the Kossuth Prize and the Bartok-Pasztory Prize, has chosen the work of Britten, Bach, and Ligeti for this solo recording. It is fine music requiring a fine sensibility.

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), the English composer influenced by Mahler and Stravinsky, produced orchestral works, operas, and songs, his best known operas including Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, Turn of the Screw, and Death in Venice. The Britten “Third Suite, op. 87,” a piece with nine sections, and written for Rostropovich, begins slowly, somber, but the rhythm becomes fast, like something that can be ridden, then heavy, even ominous. One thinks of a spiritual encounter, or an emotional relationship. The sound is exalted and exultant but it also seems focused on something troubled, worrying—as if a great spirit had been hurt and was grappling with the pain. Complex emotion, complex sounds—the many labels for structural movements in classical composition are an indication of how difficult it is to organize and perceive complexity. (Yet, this Britten piece is classical music partly inspired by Russian folk songs.) The rhythm quickens, and one is submerged in contemplation and dramatic tension; and the long drawn out notes form a singing voice—androgynous, intimate, timeless. In describing the music in the liner notes of Miklos Perenyi’s album, Paul Griffiths states, “Such brief but pregnant, and poignant, melodic links suggest a development through music of varied types—slow introduction, march, song, barcarole, abrupt dialogue, song-fugue, tiny fantasm, whirling presto—towards a ninth movement almost as long as all the others put together…” The emotion perceptible in the music is not simple or soothing, it is not a long lullaby; and one hesitates to easily use the word beauty.

There is a swirl of richly melodious sound, nearly playful, possibly flirtatious, and certainly charming, in the introduction of the Bach “Suite VI, D major,” a piece with six sections. The German baroque organist-composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote deeply human but ornamental music with unique harmonies, both religious and secular. “Suite VI” is sprightly music that does not register as shallow: rather, as it soothes, the listener feels as if a question is being explored. Is there a foundation of sorrow? A dancing rhythm vanquishes the question; and the dexterity required for a complex sound that suggests more than one instrument—a music of density and echoes—is impressive, but one is distracted from that perception by the little circles of speeding sound. One imagines a courtly dance, then supposes that one hears in the music first social chatter, then private meditation. It is a strong outpouring of sound; sound that dominates hearing, forcing the listener to adapt to it, even as one thinks that such a piece of music requires multiple listens for understanding. Its richness may be partly accounted for by the fact that Bach, a master of counterpoint, admired by Mozart, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn, was known to use elements from different national traditions in a single composition, while paying attention to each instrument’s tone.

The strum of a taut bow—that was this listener’s thought as the Gyorgy Ligeti’s two-part sonata commenced; but one senses a very modern tension. Something angular, sharp. Its sound is punctuated by something more conventional, a layered tone; it is like a speech with digressions. One listens and hears a fast, hard rhythm, probably too fast and changing for any dance. There is a lot of energy. It is a sonata written between 1948 and 1953, but not made public by the composer, Ligeti, until 1979. Gyorgy Ligeti (1923-2006) had been born in Romania to Hungarian parents, and forced during the last century’s second world war, as a Jew, to enter a labor brigade; and, after the war, Ligeti graduated from the Liszt Academy in Budapest, having studied under Zoltan Kodaly, and, following further political strife, Ligeti moved to Vienna, where he met the musical avant-garde, including Karl Stockhausen and Michael Koenig. Gyorgy Ligeti is a composer whose interests were European folk, classical, and avant-garde music, and Ligeti came to appreciate African music and jazz, especially Thelonious Monk. Ligeti, a winner of the Berlin Prize for his Requiem, and a recipient of the Polar Music Price, wanted to make music that was his. Ligeti’s work includes Apparitions, Lontano, Le Grand Macabre, and theTrio for Violin, Horn and Piano; and his music was used in the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey, giving Ligeti a large, new audience, and was used in Kubrick’s The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. Miklos Perenyi’s performance of Ligeti, Bach, and Britten is something to enjoy, and it is ennobling.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.