The Concertgebouworkest's AAA Series, currently going into its fifth season, is continuing to bring exciting music to Amsterdam's Concertgebouw. Tonight's programme may not have contained any new pieces, but it was the Concertgebouworkest's first performance of Ligeti's Requiem, flanked by pieces by Ockeghem, Varèse and Ravel. The theme of the 'The Sublime', that this AAA series is centred around is arguably present in all these works – and when Ligeti and Varèse's works in particular are performed as well as they were this evening, even the listener can get a sense of the sublime.

Jonathan Nott © Thomas Müller
Jonathan Nott
© Thomas Müller

The Kyrie from Johannes Ockeghem's Missa prolationum immediately brought to the fore the strength of tonight's chorus. Although only a small number of them sang the piece, the sound was stunning. With its intricate and complex vocal lines, one could certainly hear just why Ligeti was inspired by the Missa prolationum. It was a smart programming move in this successful continuation of this series to pair Ockeghem with Ligeti, not simply because it allowed us to hear the similarities between the pieces, but also because a small warming-up before the Ligeti is certainly desirable. 

Ligeti's Requiem, written in the 1960s but revised in 1997, had never before been performed by the Concertgebouworkest, so this première was long overdue. It is an absolutely extraordinary experience to hear the work live, it was one of the most beautiful – but at the same time the most terrifying – pieces of music I have ever heard in a concert hall. From the opening notes onwards Ligeti creates an atmosphere of anxiety, an atmosphere that is overwhelmingly intense and captivating.

The Groot Omroepkoor and Vlaams Radio Koor sang exquisitely, the different vocal lines both melting together and never quite seeming to fit, this is partly what gives the piece such an eerie sound. These differing vocal lines means that we hear a collection of voices – a tapestry of voices, weaving in and out of each other. This means that hardly any of the words are actually audible, but this makes the piece all the more effective and emotionally powerful. The orchestral writing is similarly impressive, the sound of the instruments is often woven into the fabric of the chorus, though sometimes they radically break out. The Concertgebouworkest were thoroughly convincing in both of these aspects, Jonathan Nott leading them wholeheartedly. In the Dies irae, soloists Jane Archibald and Allyson McHardy both shone in their roles with plenty of vocal acrobatics, McHardy being particularly impressive with her warm sound. 

Edgard Varèse's Arcana is one of those works that still sounds extremely fresh, despite being composed in the 1920s. It's a boisterous work, partly inspired by Stravinsky (some references to the Sacre du printemps are hard to miss). The opening theme serves as the piece's idée fixe, it returns in multiple different forms, though never quite so powerfully as the expressions of the brass in these opening bars. The piece continually pulsates and intrigues, keeping the listener on the edge of their seat. The Concertgebouworkest are excellent interpreters of Varèse, and with Nott at the helm I knew this had to be an impressive performance. Thankfully the orchestra and conductor more than lived up to my expectations – the performance of Arcana was energetic, precise and impassioned.

La Valse came as somewhat of a palate cleanser after the intensity of Ligeti and Varèse. Less focused on sublimity, Ravel's famous waltz has never sounded like such a light piece to me before. This is not because the orchestra played it superficially, on the contrary, they were as convincing as they had been the rest of the evening, but the rhythms and melodies of the piece, as well as its transparent orchestral colour that is so typical of Ravel, made listening to La Valse after Arcana and the Requiem like taking a nice hot bath after doing an intense work-out. And that makes for a perfect ending to this evening.