Ligeti Complete Works for a Cappella Choir SWR Classic

György Ligeti (1926-2006)
Complete Works for a Cappella Choir
SWR Vokalensemble/Yuval Weinberg
rec. 2019-2022, SWR Funkstudio, Stuttgart, Germany
SWR Classic SWR19128CD [55+60]

If you know György Ligeti’s orchestral or chamber, this release may come as a surprise. Other than the last three works on the second disc, all pieces may at first hearing seem traditional and uncomplicated. There is a well-defined lyricism in the folksong-inspired numbers. Such lyricism may well be absent from Ligeti’s exploitation of complex polyphony, massive cluster chords and an emphasis on timbre rather than harmony, melody and rhythm. To be sure, now and again something in these “folksongs” seems to push outwards towards Ligeti’s more mature style.

My review benefits from the liner notes devised by contemporary music specialist Rainer Nonnenmann.

Throughout his career, Ligeti composed a cappella music for amateurs, church workers and professional choirs. These were often organised by the Béla Bartók Association, and featured music from the Renaissance to the 20th century. There were also large choral works such as the Requiem for soprano and mezzo-soprano solo, mixed chorus and orchestra (1963-1965), the Adventures (1962) and the Nouvelles Adventures (1962-1965) for voices and instrumental ensemble.

Most of the pieces on this programme are settings of Hungarian texts. Ligeti’s preferred poets were Bálint Balassa (1554-1594) and Sándor Weöres (1913-1989). Several use “found” folksongs; others deploy elements of this style such as pentatonic scales, frequent changes of rhythm and unusual time signatures. The notes give useful advice to help approach these pieces. Ligeti wanted to “realise the respective contents to music programmatically but focussed especially on particular phonetic sound sequences, rhythms, intonations and accentuations of the Hungarian language”. It is also felt that “translations of this speech music are nigh on impossible” and in some cases “even dispensable as you do not have to understand the words in order to experience the choral works as music that is rich in tone colours, rhythmically concise and extremely expressive”. Still, I recommend a quick scan of the English translations just to get a clue as to the flavour of the piece.

One can detect Béla Bartók’s influence in the earlier pieces. This is unsurprising. The elder composer was a forerunner in the (re)discovery of folk music from the Austro-Hungarian empire, which at that time included Romania and much of the Balkans. Other influences include Zoltán Kodály and possibly Mátyás Seiber.

It is important to recognize the political background of Ligeti’s art. He began composing in the dark days of Nazism. Then he suffered the censorship by the Soviets, and was affected by the dictates of Socialist Realism. After the Hungarian uprising in 1956 was crushed, he fled with his wife to Austria and then on to Cologne. And then there was his meeting with Karlheinz Stockhausen in that German city…

I will not comment on all fifty-two pieces in this album. The track listing shows several sets or groups. Whatever the logic behind the order, it is a pity it was not chronological. In any case, most of the numbers come from the 1940s and the 1950s. Only the haunting Lux Aeterna, the Hungarian Etudes and the Three Fantasies after Friedrich Hölderlin – which end the programme – were written much later. They promulgate an avant-garde aesthetic. Enthusiasts of the composer will claim that these represent the “real” Ligeti.

The liner notes provide a detailed study of this repertoire. All the works are set in their cultural and political milieu. The texts of the songs are accompanied English translations, except the Three Fantasies given only in German.

The SWR Vokalensemble was established in 1946 as Südfunk-Chor Stuttgart. Yuval Weinberg has been their chief conductor since 2020. The choir gives immaculate performances of these widely diverse pieces. They must be sympathetic to Ligeti’s music in all its manifestations.

I had known little about the sheer variety of Ligeti’s a cappella works. They range from the avant-garde to music that could almost have been heard in cathedrals in the 1500s, and even earlier with plainsong. I suggest you take them two or three at a time. Through-listening will deprive you of the magic and wonder of these often beautiful pieces. Some might argue that this album is only of interest to Ligeti enthusiasts and completists, but there really is something for everyone here. The release adds a great deal to our appreciation of one of the most important composers of the 20th century.

John France

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Disc 1
Haj, ifjusag! (Hey, Youth!) (1952)
Pápainé (Mrs. Pápai) (1953)
Kállai kettős (Couple Dances from Kálló) (1950)
No. 1. Felülről fúj az őszi szél (The autumn wind blows from above)
No. 2. Eb fél, kutya fél (Only a dog is afraid)
Mátraszentimrei dalok (Songs from Mátraszentimre) (1955)
No. 1. Három hordó (Three Barrels)
No. 2. Igaz szerelem (True Love)
No. 3. Gomb, gomb (Button, Button)
No. 4. Erdöbe, erdöbe (In the Woods)
Magány (Solitude) (1946)
Éjszaka, Reggel (Night, Morning) (1955)
No. 1 Éjszaka (Night)
No. 2 Reggel (Morning)
Húsvét (Easter) (1946)
Betlehemi királyok (Kings of Bethlehem) (1945-1946)
Chorlied nach Goethe (Choir Song after Goethe) (1942)
A varró lányok (The Seamstresses) (1942)
Idegen földön (In a Strange Land) (1945-1946)
No. 1. Siralmas nékem (Woeful for Me)
No. 2. Egy fekete holló (A Black Raven)
No. 3. Vissza ne nézz (Don’t Look Back)
No. 4. Fujdogál a nyári szél (The Summer Wind Is Blowing)
Bujdosó (The Fugitive) (1946)
Magos kősziklának (On the Side of a High Cliff) (1946)
Négy lakodalmi tánc (Four Wedding Dances) (1950)
No. 1. A menyasszony szép virág (A bride is a splendid flower)
No. 2. A kapuban a szekér (A Surrey at the gate)
No. 3. Hopp ide tisztán, szép pallútt dëszkán (Jump over here, on a nice duckboard)
No. 4. Mikor kedves Laci bátyám szépen hegedülne (When my dear Uncle Laci plays his beautiful fiddle)
Lakodalmas (Wedding Song) (1950)
Inaktelki nóták (Songs from Inaktelke) (1953)
No. 1. Sej, hideg sincsen (It’s not even cold)
No. 2. Úri bicsok, nincsen nyele (The master’s pocket-knife has no handle)
No. 3. Én az uccán már végig se mehetek (I can’t even go out on the street anymore)

Disc 2
Hortobágy (1952)
Temetés a tengeren (Burial at Sea) (1943)
Hajnal (Dawn) (1949-1950)
Hajnal I (Dawn I)
Hajnal II (Dawn II)
Hajnal III (Dawn III)
Burját aratódal (Buryat Harvest Song) (1945)
Nagy idök (Great Times) (1946/1948)
Dereng már a hajnal (Dawn is Breaking) (1945)
Tél (Winter) (1950)
Két Balassa Bálint-kórus (Two Choirs on Poems by Bálint Balassa) (1946)
No. 1. Csillagok palotája (Palace of Stars)
No. 2. Mezök illatoznak… (Fragrant Meadows…)
Orbán (1942)
Az asszony és a katona (The Woman and the Soldier) (1951)
Két kánon (Two Canons) (1947/1952)
No.1. Ha folyóvíz volnék (If I were a River)
No. 2. Pletykázó asszonyok (Gossiping Women)
Lux aeterna (1966)
Magyar etüdök (Hungarian Studies) (1983)
I. Etude No. 9
I. Etudes Nos. 49 and 40
III. Etude No. 90
Drei Phantasien (Three Fantasies after Friedrich Hölderlin) (1982)
No. 1. Hälfte des Lebens (Halfway through Life)
No. 2. Wenn aus der Ferne (If from a Distance
No. 3. Abendphantasie (Evening Reverie)