György Ligeti’s Concert Românesc was banned by the Soviet government for the crime of getting too fancy with colouring on dominant chords. Though by no means overly dissonant, especially as compared to Ligeti’s later works, the last few minutes of this work do become ever so slightly crunchy. Ligeti later defended this piece by saying that it was not intentionally subversive, but reflected his deep love of Romanian folk music. On this evening’s program, this piece was, in some ways, the most consonant, which highlighted the very repressive conditions Ligeti was working under. Though every piece on this concert were written as joyous music with slight dissonances, not all of it quite fulfilled its joyful potential in performance.

ORF RSO Wien © ORF/Thomas Ramstorfer
ORF RSO Wien
© ORF/Thomas Ramstorfer

David Robertson’s interpretation of the Ligeti with the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien was very lyrical, focusing on melody throughout. The offstage horn, placed in the lobby of the first balcony, floated though the hall with an otherworldly effect. This lyrical approach worked well, except in the last movement. The Molto vivace was energetic, but quite slow, making the piece sound a little sedate. In spite of this, the concertmaster pulled off a spectacular set of solos with all of the necessary verve.

Steven Mackey’s Beautiful Passing intersperses focused violin lines with a dissonance caused by confused layers of orchestral onslaught. The violin begins with long, logical, Elgar-like melodies, remaining stoic in the face of an irrational orchestra. Gradually, the conversation between these two forces builds and becomes more complex. Based on conversations with his mother as she prepared for death, the structure of Mackey’s piece sets up a very emotional space, examining the process of grieving in intricate detail.

Anthony Marwood is an excellent soloist for this work. His calm approach kept the details of Mackey’s score clear, bringing passion without frenzy. Through the loudly dissonant orchestral interjections, his playing remained unforced. As his part became more rhythmic, he stamped his feet to the little melodies, highlighting the very touching moments of joy in this dense piece. Most importantly, he brought no ego or flash to his performance, simply conveying this deeply emotional material directly to the audience.

Beautiful Passing fit very well on this program – small moments of simple, rhythmic melodies echoed the folk music used by both Ligeti and Stravinsky, while the dense orchestral episodes were also reminiscent of both composers’ later works. Near the beginning of Mackey’s piece, some moments feel like snapshots from Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, with the whole orchestra scraping hard at many layers of rough, contrasting sounds. As these ideas develop, they gain clarity for the listener, and one hears a few of the layers begin to work more cleanly over top of each other, a kind of juxtaposition or layering that Stravinsky used to often to great effect.

Petrushka is generally also a piece full of joyful, minor dissonances. Sliding quickly between scenes and characters, this accessible work makes the most sense when staged as a ballet, as originally intended. But it can work as a concert piece, as it makes for interesting listening when considering what Stravinksy wrote after it – in Petrushka, one can hear many seeds of The Rite of Spring. In this performance, Robertson opened this piece far too slowly, though, and it never quite recovered. The market scenes lacked any sense of frolic or frivolity. Characters sounded plodding, rather than playful. The orchestra seemed to lose heart, with at least one glaringly missed cue. What should have been a thirty-five minute, light-hearted romp ended up being close to fifty minutes of over-wrought romanticism.

Though the Petrushka was a disappointment, it was well worth hearing Marwood in his Konzerthaus debut, performing such a nuanced interpretation of Mackey’s piece.

***11