Disparities, Intended or Otherwise: House-Blend III at PS 21, Chatham

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György Ligeti
György Ligeti

House-Blend III at PS 21, Chatham

Works by Dallapiccola, Copland and Ligeti

Miranda Cuckson, violin; Eric Huebner, piano; Ariadne Greif, soprano; Leelanee Sterrett, horn

Ligeti’s Trio for horn, violin, and piano is subtitled “Hommage à Brahms” since it was commissioned, in 1982, as a companion piece to Brahms’ trio for the same instruments. This is a rare instrumental combination owing to radical disparities in color, volume, and methods of tone production that challenge the composer to balance and blend their sounds. It was probably this quality that acted as one of the inspirations for this piece, which marked a turning point in the career of this composer. Ligeti does not consciously emulate Brahms in this work; if anyone, it is Beethoven who serves as a distant presence. The principal motif of the trio is a variant on “horn fifths,” a sequence of intervals associated with two horns playing a descending sequence of third, fifth, and sixth. This can be heard in numerous lively pieces inspired by hunting horns, such as Scarlatti’s Sonata in C major, or the last movement of Haydn’s Symphony no. 73, “La Chasse” (the hunt). In Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 26, entitled “Les Adieux” (meaning “the farewell”), its use was for a different expressive purpose; he intended to evoke coach horns, in specific reference to the departure of his favorite student, Archduke Rudolf. This is found at the beginning of the slow introduction. To make the point totally obvious, Beethoven wrote the German syllables “Le-be-wohl” (“fare-thee-well”) over these three intervals, and harmonized the final one with a minor chord, clearly expressing the sadness of the moment. 

Beethoven’s farewell gesture was taken up by many German romantic composers, including Brahms, and thus became a topos of sorrowful departure. Ligeti seems to embrace this association, using the motif throughout, and especially in the final movement marked “Lamento.” He further modifies the motif by substituting a diminished for a perfect fifth as the second interval, thereby planting a twist in the harmony that blossoms into a fundamental character of the work as a whole: a sense of the parts not fitting neatly together. On the contrary, Ligeti revels in the inability of his forces to truly blend, and creates textures that rub against each other rhythmically, harmonically, and in tone color. Yet the entire enterprise is carried out with a compositional rigor and unfailing imagination, while placing almost inhuman demands on the performers. The result is an exhilarating work that has truly become a contemporary classic.

Undertaking to perform this work is not for the faint of heart, and the House Blend ensemble displayed consummate virtuosity in enacting their parts with spontaneous abandon while accurately maintaining the necessary complex rhythmic coordination demanded by the heterogeneous score. Particularly impressive was the horn playing of Leelanee Sterrett, whose part called for an expanded range of super-high and low notes, often played at almost inaudible levels; an unhorn-like agility; and a mastery of the special technique of playing the ultra-high harmonics in natural intonation. This requires a bit of explanation. 

Especially in his later compositions, Ligeti became very interested in micro-tones, specifically the ones resulting from the juxtaposition of tempered and untempered intervals. For example, an equal-tempered piano produces intervals that approximate but are not exactly equal to intervals found in the natural harmonic series, while the horn is capable of playing these “natural” intervals by virtue of its basic physics: horn (and brass) technique is based on using the harmonic series. This means that a horn note produced as a high, odd-numbered harmonic, will not be exactly in tune with the closest equivalent on the keyboard. For example, if the horn player sets her valves to F and plays its eleventh harmonic, the note is somewhere between B-flat and B; it does not match either of those notes on the piano, and thus will sound “out of tune.” But Ligeti, along with other microtonal composers, recognized that these harmonics have musical value and that although our ears have become used to the compromise-ridden equal temperament system, these tones have a fresh, open quality that could be described as “natural.”

The use of disparate tunings is only one ingredient in this colorful and dramatic score. Another is rhythm; the second movement is a kind of scherzo using a complex Bulgarian dance meter, one that you can really tap your foot to. In other movements, the instruments converge and diverge continuously; the violin unspools a fabric of double-stops (two-note chords) derived from the opening motif in every register of the violin, including higher than you thought it could play. And the energy levels range from near-chaotic pandemonium to very sparse and sustained. Toward the end, the horn plays a very quiet, low pedal tone that I at first mistook for the sound of a truck passing on route 66 nearby before realizing that this was actually coming from the horn. While all this sounds challenging to a general audience member (i.e. one not accustomed to contemporary music) the work is actually very emotionally vivid and accessible, a kind of new romanticism that sounds nothing like the old one. Ligeti had enough of a showman about him to make sure that his music communicates clearly, despite its fascinatingly complex technical apparatus.

Performing American song literature requires a special sensibility; this is particularly true of Copland’s Emily Dickinson settings. First of all, the poetry needs to be clearly articulated so that the listener can think about its meanings, which are complex. Unlike most opera libretti, the words here need to be pondered; their meanings (NB: the plural) unfold gradually. When set to music, however, the clock is running, and the time for contemplation is limited. I think Copland was sensitive to this, and separated the lines of these poems with little musical “spacers” which comment on the text and give the listener room to absorb it. He did not draw on lyric traditions from operas or songs in other languages; English is awkward to sing, and its inflections need to be followed, even when they are being expressively enhanced. Copland did a masterful job in finding ways to accommodate the text; clear diction, precise rhythm and near-perfect intonation from the singer are essential in these songs.

Copland’s harmonic language was meticulously crafted, honed in the workshop of Nadia Boulanger but given a very personal stamp that allows us to recognize the composer’s lucid and eloquent voice. In order for voice and piano to work together, the singer must tune scrupulously to the piano harmonies, and collaborate in them. There needs to be an even balance between voice and piano, which does not provide a conventional accompaniment but instead functions as an equal partner offering continuous commentary. Copland’s melodic style makes use of very wide intervals, meaning that the variety of colors in a singer’s voice is utilized very effectively. She needs to be able to reach easily the highest and lowest notes of her register in a wide variety of dynamics to suit the context.

The style of this performance seemed a mismatch to these requirements. The approach seemed to be somewhere between opera and cabaret, as if this were Pierrot Lunaire or Threepenny Opera. There was a great deal of swooping to and away from tones in the interest of a kind of dramatic intensity that gave the listener no space to absorb the text and register its meanings. This was accompanied by sweeping bodily gestures, some in advance of a phrase, and facial expressions telegraphing how we should react. It was difficult to understand the words, and there was no printed text supplied. There were difficulties controlling dynamics, with higher notes invariably belted out, often not sustained for their full lengths. There was little true blend with the piano part, which was superbly performed but remained in the background. All this is to say that the virtues of this high-point of American art song were not on display.

The program began with a charming piece, “Tartiniana Seconda” for violin and piano by the important but underrepresented Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola. Composed in 1956, this work utilizes unpublished movements of violin concerti by the eighteenth-century virtuoso Giuseppe Tartini and gives them a mildly modern flavor, on the model of Stravinsky, whose ballet “Pulcinella” (1922) was based on Italian baroque chamber music. It was gracefully rendered by Cuckson and Huebner. 

As in the earlier House Blend concerts, one is left to contemplate the rationales behind the ingenious programming of Alan Feinberg. I’ve tipped my hand in the title of this review: I think the idea of “disparity” may underlie the selections. There is the stylistic disparity of neo-classicism (Dallapiccola), tonal modernism (Copland), and wild micro-tonal heterogeneity (Ligeti); also the textural disparity of vocal music with text, violin music at one remove from its origins, and three instruments struggling to find common ground (or to assert themselves in its absence). If the performance of the Copland had been more effective, it might have been possible to discern the underlying thought more clearly; but it is fun as an audience member to be challenged in this way—it gives you a lot to think about after the lights go on.

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