In an interview last week, GBH host Arun Rath asked Thomas Adès — the composer, conductor, and pianist often at the center of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s most involving projects — about the influence of the Hungarian composer György Ligeti, whose centennial the BSO has been marking.
“I wouldn’t try to deny it,” Adès replied. “I think it was almost inevitable, when you have an artist like that who redefines everything about the art form.” And Ligeti himself, he added, was “very open about the influences on his own music” — particularly that of Bartok.
This play of artistic lineage has been on display throughout the BSO’s Ligeti celebration. Listening to Adès, the orchestra, and pianist Kirill Gerstein play Ligeti’s Piano Concerto last week, for example, one heard polyrhythms that sounded like precursors of the formidable rhythmic complexities of Adès’s own music.
That same give and take was apparent during the first half of Sunday’s performance by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, the Ligeti celebration’s concluding event. In two works by Ligeti and one by Adès, one could hear the give and take of influence: musical attributes and strategies transmitted (and transformed) through one composer’s encounter with another.
The concert led off with Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for wind quintet, one of the composer’s most popular works. The wit and energy of much of this music are Ligeti’s own, already evident early in his career. But the spirit of Bartok also seems to hover much of the set. The fifth is a memorial for the older composer, and elsewhere one can hear the legacy of Bartok’s night music pieces and his melding of folk music and modernity. The impact of these brief gems was amplified by the (unsurprisingly) stellar playing of the BSO’s first-desk wind players.
A very different characteristic emerged from Adès and Gerstein’s mesmerizing account of three pieces for two pianos. Largely studies in rhythm, the pieces reveal a fascination with minimalism, a rarely encountered side of Ligeti’s personality. In “Monument,” the first piece, a series of hammered chords fall in and out of sync with one another, not unlike the early phase pieces of Steve Reich. The second piece, in which patterns gradually change and expand before an explosive coda, makes this connection explicit in its title: “Self-Portrait with Reich and [Terry] Riley (and Chopin in the Background).” Just when you’re starting to think of Ligeti as a proto-minimalist, though, the final piece emerges with cascading scales and frenzied motion, pointing toward a new horizon.
Adès’s own “Növények,” seven Hungarian poems set for mezzo-soprano and a sextet of piano and strings, is his first set of original songs in more than a quarter-century. The title is the Hungarian word for plants, and all the poems use metaphors of growth and change to reflect on the human condition.
What traces of Ligeti’s influence were here? A connection was made simply by virtue of Adès’s use of Hungarian, the older composer’s native language. The cycle was written for mezzo-soprano Katalin Károlyi, for whom Ligeti wrote one of his final works. And perhaps it was present in Adès’s ability to take relatively simple materials — a series of scales, or tremolos and slides in the strings — and build them into something of complex and discomfiting power.
Yet the dominant impression left by “Növények” is simply how mesmerizingly powerful this music is. The vocal melodies convey both the earthiness of the language and the darkness of many of the poems. As he does in virtually all of his works, Adès somehow finds a way to vary texture, color, tone in a relatively homogeneous ensemble. (One movement required the violins and violas to place their instruments on their laps and strum them, like a dulcimer.) And much of the credit for the impact goes to Károlyi, whose performance was both dramatic and superbly controlled.
What was Mozart’s C-major String Quintet, K. 515, doing on this program? An even grander statement about tradition and influence? A palette cleanser? It was hard to tell, but the players gave a performance that turned warm and elegant after starting somewhat stiffly. The love duets between first violinist Haldan Martinson and first violist Cathy Basrak in the slow movement made for a superb capstone for the afternoon.
BOSTON SYMPHONY CHAMBER PLAYERS
At Jordan Hall, Nov. 19
An earlier version of this review was unclear about György Ligeti’s identity. Ligeti was born in Romania, but he and his family identified as Hungarian Jewish.