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Gyorgy Ligeti: Requiem; Apparitions; San Francisco Polyphony

Ligeti / Hannigan / Wdr Sym Orch & Radio / Eotvos
Release Date: 09/11/2012 
Label:  Budapest Music Center/Bmc (Hungary)   Catalog #: 166   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  György Ligeti
Conductor:  Peter Eötvös
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Wdr SinfonieorchesterWdr Sinfonieorchester Rundfunkchor
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

LIGETI Requiem. 1 Apparitions. San Francisco Polyphony Peter Eötvös, cond; 1 Barbara Hannigan (sop); 1 Susan Parry (mez); WDR SO & Ch Cologne BUDAPEST MUSIC CENTER RECORDS BMC CD 166 (CD + AUDIO-DVD: 49:16)

Ligeti’s Requiem has been well served by commercial recordings. This CD is the third version available, and like Read more the two before it, it is performed and recorded to an exceptionally high standard. The work poses huge challenges, both musical and logistical. On this occasion, they have been surmounted through an ideal German/Hungarian collaboration: a Hungarian conductor who really knows the music, a Hungarian record label that is keen to promote it, and an orchestra and choir from a German broadcasting house, whose members have the resources and rehearsal time needed to make the project viable.

The first recording of the work was made at Darmstadt in 1968, with Michael Gielen conducting the Hessischer Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra. That’s the version on 2001, and if you’ve seen the movie you’ll know just how much impact and atmosphere Geilen managed to draw from the score, then only three years old. The sound quality is impressive for its time, and the recording is still a serious contender. It is currently available on a slightly perfunctory Wergo rerelease (60045), which frustratingly doesn’t separate the four movements into individual tracks. In 2003, the Sony/Teldec “Ligeti Project” reached the Requiem, with a version from the Berlin Philharmonic under Jonathan Nott (Teldec 8573-88263-2). This recording is superior to Gielen’s in many ways, most notably in the quality of the sound and of the orchestral playing, which together reveal a whole new world of detail in Ligeti’s micropolyphonic textures.

The fact that this new recording bears comparison with those two great performances is to the credit of Peter Eötvös and his WDR forces. Eötvös delivers a convincing reading, full of atmosphere and menace, but he is let down on many occasions by small details. In other music that might not matter, but in this score the details are absolutely crucial. The Kyrie is about as complex a choral movement as it is possible to imagine, with each member of the choir singing a separate line, contributing to heterophony within the voice groups, and counterpoint between them. Of the three recordings, Nott’s is the only one to employ a professional choir (London Voices), and it shows. The WDR Rundfunkchor does its best for Eötvös, but never quite manages the level of precision the score requires. Entries are usually in synchronized unison within the voice group, but many of these, including the very first, are ragged and imprecise. The balance favors the orchestra over the choir, which brings out new details in the instrumental writing, but seriously disadvantages the singers.

The following movement, De die judicii seqentia, takes the music in a completely different direction. Brief passages of stillness are repeatedly interrupted by violent interjections from the vocal soloists, the brass, and the percussion. The performance here is more precise, but those interjections lack the bite and anger we hear from both Gielen and Nott.

The other works on the disc, Apparitions and San Francisco Polyphony, were also previously recorded by Nott and the Berlin Philharmonic for the Teldec series, and again Nott retains the upper hand. (A recording of the latter work from Elgar Howarth in 1977 is also available on Wergo, but the sound quality alone pushes that one into third place.) Again, detail is of crucial importance to both works, and comparison of the Eötvös and the Nott finds both conductors well served by their orchestra and their engineers. More detail is evident on the Nott recording, yet despite the quantity of detail there, it all fits into a unified sonic entity. Here, there is a similar overall unity, just not the same level of depth or complexity in the sound.

The main difference between the Nott and the Eötvös recordings of these three works is the style of sound recording. The engineering on the earlier Teldec version gives an expansive soundstage, which is broad and immersive. The new recording aims instead for a natural-sounding reproduction. The lowest bass notes, for example, have presence but do not feel artificially amplified. That’s a virtue, although not necessarily a relevant one.

That said, I have only been listening to the stereo mix, and disc 2 is an audio-DVD offering the same recording, but in DTS and Dolby 5.1. Years ago, when I had to choose between the competing technologies, I opted for an SACD player, and in all that time this is the first occasion I’ve had to regret the decision. Ligeti’s Requiem in surround is indeed an attractive proposition. It could be argued that the stereo mix on the Nott version virtually is surround sound, such is its immersive quality. And perhaps the less-involving stereo sound on the CD here is a result of engineering that is geared primarily to the surround mix.

The packaging for these discs is difficult to negotiate. It is one of those cardboard gatefolds, where flaps open to reveal more flaps, but not the discs themselves, which remain concealed despite your best efforts. The booklet is reasonably informative, but the layout is seriously discouraging, with the text in an angular font and printed on lurid yellow paper.

Perhaps the Budapest Music Center is trying to emphasize the modernity of this music through the box design. I’d say that’s misguided. The music sounds contemporary because so many composers are still copying it. But these pieces are classics, pivotal works in the history of 20th-century music. Fortunately, their representation on CD fully acknowledges that fact. Were it not for Jonathan Nott’s exceptional recordings, this would easily become the version of choice for all three works. But it’s only a few steps behind, and there’s no shame in being beaten by the very best.

FANFARE: Gavin Dixon
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Works on This Recording

San Francisco Polyphony by György Ligeti
Conductor:  Peter Eötvös
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Wdr Sinfonieorchester
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1973-1974; USA 
Requiem by György Ligeti
Conductor:  Peter Eötvös
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Wdr Sinfonieorchester,  Wdr Sinfonieorchester Rundfunkchor
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1963-1965; Vienna, Austria 
Apparitions by György Ligeti
Conductor:  Peter Eötvös
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Wdr Sinfonieorchester,  Wdr Sinfonieorchester Rundfunkchor
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1958-1959; Vienna, Austria 

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