The Aurora Orchestra offered a rare programme consisting of four concertos by György Ligeti: first a concerto for chamber orchestra then three solo concertos, for piano, horn and finally violin. It might be thought that each one of these would make more impact in a varied programme, but this sequence proved very satisfying, not least because of the variety between them – they are from different stages in Ligeti’s career and reflect his technical concerns at the time of composition. Given that this was a sunny afternoon in May, with the BAFTA Television awards taking over the Royal Festival Hall next door and providing celebrity-spotting fun, the hall was reasonably full. Ligeti’s admirers (including Sir Harrison Birtwistle) were there to support the venture, and were rewarded with some outstanding music-making from three of the world’s great Ligeti interpreters, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Marie-Luise Neunecker and Patricia Kopatchinskaja.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard © Marco Borggreve | Deutsche Grammophon
Pierre-Laurent Aimard
© Marco Borggreve | Deutsche Grammophon

We began with the Chamber Concerto, for 13 instruments from 1970. Of the micropolyphonic textures employed in the piece Ligeti once said, “one clearly discernible interval combination is gradually blurred, and from this cloudiness it is possible to discern a new interval combination taking shape.” That certainly describes its evocative opening but there was melody too, and some strong contrasts. The opening Corrente  presents initially a motion that somehow stood still, while the following movement (marked Calmo, sostenuto) suggested an immobility that was in flux. But then Ligeti is full of such technical paradoxes. The ensuing Movimento preciso e meccanico was exactly as that sounds – precision of intonation, balance and ensemble being an essential requirement for the music to make its effect, which, expertly guided by Nicholas Collon, it did.

Collon did more than conduct – he also used slides to present aspects of each piece, and even held interviews with two of the soloists, so that the concert gave us something of Ligeti the man and insights into the craftsmanship behind the music. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who worked extensively with Ligeti, was asked what he was like. He referred to a deep, tragic sense, coming from his personal history – Ligeti was a Hungarian Jew born in 1923 – but also to his “fantasy, curiosity and infectious humour”. “A bit like his music” he added, before playing what he considers the greatest of contemporary piano concertos with unassailable technical skill and stylistic authority – he had played all the Ligeti piano Études at this South Bank Centre Ligeti weekend the evening before. His playing was especially vibrant in the driving, quasi-Bartókian episodes.

The “Hamburg Concerto” (Hamburgisches Konzert) for solo horn and chamber orchestra is one of Ligeti's last works, composed in 1998–99 and revised in 2003 (he died in 2006). It has seven short movements, and the orchestra has the extraordinary addition of four obbligato natural horns, so that the harmonic world of their pure overtones now collides, now blends, with the equal temperament of the solo horn. There are also basset horns for the clarinetists to play, adding to the soft, mellow sound Ligeti aimed at. You could certainly hear what Aimard meant by Ligeti’s “curiosity” and the sheer ingenuity that followed from it. The solo was played here by its first performer and dedicatee, Marie-Luise Neunecker, again with obvious authority, and the quartet of natural horns was impeccable throughout. The sequence of movements offers great variety, with plenty of opportunity for those playing instruments other than horns. So swiftly did the numerous episodes succeed each other that this was the work I most wanted to hear played again.

But it was time for another concerto, this time for violin, more new tunings (for one violin and viola), another platform rearrangement, extra percussion, and some unexpected extra instruments – ocarinas, slide whistles and a descant recorder. Paul Griffiths’ programme note saw these as instruments “of uncertain intonation” and the conductor added that they are also instruments of childhood. Patricia Kopatchinskaja in her short interview saw something in Ligeti’s music as perennially childlike. An elfin presence herself, barefooted, in a black and white outfit that referenced the tails of formal concert dress, she seemed determined to have a ball with the mischievous demands of this work. But then she has the gifts and indeed the platform temperament to pull this off, and played with extraordinary skill and commitment right up to her own jaw-dropping cadenza, with her vocal contributions at the end. Even Birtwistle joined in the standing ovation.

As we left the hall, the BAFTA glitterati were arriving. I doubt that many of the TV productions they were celebrating provided the range, imagination, invention or even star quality that Collon, his splendid Aurora players, and these Olympian soloists brought to the fantastic world of György Ligeti.