Asko|Schönberg, ensemble in residence at the Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ, opened the first edition of the Young Pianists Festival with a concert featuring two piano concertos, by György Ligeti and Klaas de Vries. The Dutch composer wrote his Second Piano Concerto for Daniël van der Hoeven, who won the Young Pianists Competition three years ago. Ligeti’s spirit pervaded the evening, for De Vries sought inspiration in one of Ligeti’s Etudes for piano, Hans Abrahamsen orchestrated two of these for ensemble, and the concert opened with Gougalōn by Unsuk Chin, a Korean–German composer who studied with Ligeti.

Reinbert de Leeuw
Reinbert de Leeuw

In a pre-concert talk, Klaas de Vries admitted having been a bit overwhelmed when he was asked to write a piano concerto to go alongside Ligeti’s masterpiece. “He’s one of the greatest composers I know, extremely versatile, always seeking new directions. The rhythmic drive in his Piano Concerto is totally different from the static sound clouds in pieces such as Atmosphères, or the cabaretesque antics in Aventures/Nouvelles Aventures.”

To avoid competition with Ligeti, De Vries decided to write a one-part concerto. Yet he pays homage to the Hungarian master by quoting the first bar of his piano étude Galamb borong, a riveting octave tremolo. De Vries made this small motive the driving force in the Second Piano Concerto. It pops up continuously, now in the higher registers of the piano, then in the grumbling depths of the lower keys. Daniël van der Hoeven is an alert player, who held his ground in the sometimes disruptive intermissions of percussion and brass. At other times, wispy harmonics from the string players created a sensual halo around the piano part, thus evoking the night atmosphere De Vries said he’s striven for. The piece ended abruptly after about ten minutes, leaving the audience gasping for more – perhaps De Vries should reconsider his idea of a one-part concerto, for this would make a very good first part.

Ligeti’s Piano Concerto was preceded by arrangements by the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen of two of Ligeti’s Etudes, written in the same period (1985–88). The light, quasi impressionistic Arc-en-ciel was contrasted pungently with the darker En Supens, featuring wistful solos by the French horn.

These miniatures proved to be a good introduction to Ligeti’s colourful, five-part Piano Concerto, played with admirable gusto and precision by the Yugoslav–German pianist Tamara Stefanovich. During our pre-concert talk, she had compared its complex rhythms to a doll’s house: we can easily take in the activity on each separate floor, but are baffled when we try to grasp all the action simultaneously. A fitting comparison, for right from the start the uneven, limping rhythms, overlaying each other in dazzling complexity, grab the audience aggressively and leave them panting for breath. At other times “out-of-tune” quarter tones and languishing birdcalls – echoed by the piano – create a haunting, outlandish atmosphere. Stefanovich, Asko|Schönberg and conductor Reinbert de Leeuw gave wings to this demanding concerto, sustaining its tension from beginning to end.

The concert opened with Unsuk Chin’s Gougalōn: Szenen aus einem Strassentheater, named after the old-German word for conjuring. Asko|Schönberg performed its Dutch première in incomplete, four-part form in 2011; in this concert, all six parts were played. Chin vies with her former teacher in imaginative instrumentation and colouring. The Prologue is marked by energetic strings and rumbustious percussion; “Lamento der kahlen Sängerin” has whining Chinese cymbals; “Der grinsende Wahrsager mit dem falschen Gebiss” is a mix of quick percussion runs and “false” notes from a trombone; “Episode zwischen Flaschen und Dosen” is played on bottles and tin cans only; in “Tanz vor den Baracken” long lines in the strings are supported by softly swaying brass, while in “Die Jagd nach dem Zopf des Quacksalbers” pandemonium breaks loose in all the instruments, taking us back to the beginning.

Gougalōn shows how strongly Chin has absorbed the best of both cultures: she successfully pairs a typically German love of the grotesque with an Asiatic sound world, often to hilarious effect. Despite the undeniable qualities of the concertos by De Vries and Ligeti, it was Chin’s Gougalōn that proved to be the most effective.

The Young Pianists Festival was initiated by the Young Pianists Foundation and runs for ten days. There are numerous concerts, masterclasses and lectures, and over 30 pianists compete for the first prize of the Young Pianists Competition. It will be awarded on 24 November by Jet Bussemaker, Minister of Culture. There is also the new Grand Prix Youri Egorov, the winner of which will make his/her debut in a solo concert with the Mariinsky Orchestra, led by conductor Valery Gergiev.