Performing dramatic musical works in the concert hall is often described as a metaphorical ‘balancing act’ between dramatic content and musical fidelity. Yet, the recent spate of concert hall versions of operatic works by orchestras without sufficient resources to stage a full opera tips the scales in favour of music with additional dramatic elements resulting in somewhat unconvincing outcomes. Looking to reunite the two were Manchester’s premiere contemporary music group Psappha, in two dramatic and newly-dramatised works by Ligeti and Kurtág alongside two classics of the modern repertoire. 

© Psappha

Before the two dramatic works of the second half commenced, Psappha’s musicians first showed their innate musicianship in works by Witold Lutosławski and Bela Bartók. Lutosławski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini, heard here in the original two piano configuration and performed by Ben Powell and Paul Janes, dates from the composer's piano duo days with fellow composer Andrzej Panufnik in occupied Poland, where the two would transcribe music for performances in Warsaw cafes and at private functions. The piece is dazzling in its application of the compositional processes du jour, thus exploring virtuosity through a non-melodic lens. Powell and Janes’ performance demonstrated this exceptionally, even if the acoustic choices meant some detail was lost. A combination of the need for sightlines in the following Bartók piece and Psappha’s noticeable camera presence seeking the best shots of the soloists meant that both pianists were situated with their backs to the audience angled away from each other, and both played without their piano lids. This meant the sound sometimes lacked the focus and projection one might expect. Although the work’s formal and tonal bedrock might have suited a finale-orientated programming, the audience were certainly left to rue the lost output of such an inspired compositional partnership; imagine where piano ensemble music might be if some of Lutosławski/Panufnik’s arrangements of Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and Bach had survived…

Janes and Powell were joined by Tim Williams and Oliver Patrick for the Stravinsky-inspired Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. The languorous opening with its juggernaut 9/8 pulse set up a middle movement with music and lyricism bursting out of the strict meter like a caged animal. If there was one criticism, it was that, in moments where time was taken over the music, the unfamiliar chamber ensemble lacked one figure taking the lead, meaning some potential for flexibility in espressivo sections was lost. However, the delightfully bright xylophone timbre at the start of the third movement brought a joyful character to the piece which is often missed in music of this ilk.

After the interval came the first of two dramatic works, György Kurtág’s Stseny iz Romana (Scenes from a Novel). Based on a text by Russian émigré Rimma Dalos, the collection of 15 songs is an intensely introspective exploration of love and feeling, with Kurtág utilising a limited palette of soprano, violin, double bass and cimbalom in an ascetic yet direct way. Yet, Kurtág’s intense introspection wasn’t matched by the new, expressionistic direction by Elaine Tyler-Hall, involving two alternating projections of a dancer, representing ‘the threshold between existence and memory’. Whether this could have been gleaned without a helpful programme note remains to be seen, as the moments of vague synchronisation with soprano Gillian Keith were partnered with moments of contrast not striking enough to truly be juxtapositions. The piece is certainly a difficult sing, and Keith managed admirably, especially given that she had to sing the final Ligeti pieces too. The production didn’t quite get to the heart of Kurtág’s message, but there were certainly mesmerising passages; whilst the sliver of the eighth movement at the piece’s heart wasn’t given enough dramatic space, this was made up for by the pulsating perpetuum mobile section in the twelfth and two beautifully pensive final movements.

After an awkwardly long staging turnaround came Ligeti’s comic operas, Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, in which Psappha reunited with former Principal Conductor Nicholas Kok. With the stupor of the Kurtág still resonating, it took a long while for people (both on stage and in the audience) to realise that this was a work that one could and should laugh out loud at – perhaps that was Kok’s aim. Ligeti’s score is a terrific comedy, using a battery of everyday objects in the percussion department and a fantasy, nonsense language for the vocal part. Whilst there could have been less expression in the Kurtág, there could have been even more expression and interplay between the characters in the Beckettian attempt to avoid the doomed silence. Was a Peter Maxwell Davies-style refined wit underpinning Psappha’s approach to the Ligeti? Potentially. Did the piece make for an enjoyable end for a thought-provoking evening? Certainly.