|Pungent Harmonies Drawn From Ancient Traditions|
|August 16, 2010|
By JAMES R. OESTREICH
When the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center was being revamped a decade or so ago, some thought that it should give its overworked hero a rest and do something else entirely.
Instead the festival has deftly continued to serve Mozart, if a bit more judiciously, and done things that are completely different.
Never more so than in the current minifestival Bach and Polyphonies, which -- conceived by the pianist and conductor Pierre-Laurent Aimard -- juxtaposes examples of Renaissance and Baroque polyphony with works of modern vintage. The six-concert series opened on Friday evening with two programs featuring music of Bach, Gyorgy Ligeti, Iannis Xenakis and Elliott Carter, superbly performed at Alice Tully Hall and the Kaplan Penthouse.
But it was the male Ensemble Basiani from the Republic of Georgia, singing two sets of Georgian polyphony descended from an ancient tradition, that stole the main show at Tully against strong competition. Mr. Aimard said from the stage that he had first heard recorded examples of this tradition 30 years ago and had always wanted to hear it live.
The rest of us could only be grateful for his obsession. The ensemble, singing in close harmony, presented sacred and folk music displaying polyphonic devices ranging from simple drones to intricately interwoven melodies, which often crossed or combined to produce harmonies pungent to the Western ear.
There was full-throated singing of the kind heard from Russian choruses, but in what seemed the more characteristic style of vocal production, sounds were sparingly emitted from the throat rather than shaped in the mouth and then actively projected. The quaintest number, Chela, in which a farmer regales his uncomprehending oxen with his sorrows, involved a kind of yodeling.
This idiom seemed as far removed from Bach's glorious motet ''Jesu, Meine Freude'' as it did from 1960s works of Ligeti and Xenakis, all magnificently performed by the mixed chorus Ars Nova Copenhagen, conducted by the choral wizard Paul Hillier.
For the Bach, Mr. Hillier used 16 voices, unobtrusively supported by a portative organ, and you had the distinct sense that every voice counted. As usual, Mr. Hillier achieved marvels of balance and textual clarity that most choruses would envy but that was here, it seemed, only a starting point. A scintillating display of individualities and shifting emphases enlivened the performance at every moment.
The performances of Ligeti's ''Lux Aeterna'' and Xenakis's ''Nuits'' were no less accomplished. These are treacherous a cappella tours de force that you never want to hear an inferior chorus attempt.
The Ligeti work, used in the film ''2001: A Space Odyssey,'' develops something of a paradox, a sort of static polyphony. It consists mainly of long-held notes by single singers entering periodically, generally within close pitch clusters but sometimes floating aloft, as if emanating from another planet; either way, finding the pitches requires intense concentration from the singers and in this case, at least for one, occasional help from a tuning fork.
After the weaving of this fine ''tissue,'' in Mr. Aimard's description, came the ''explosion'' of ''Nuits,'' in which Xenakis deploys isolated sounds of ancient languages (though no text per se) to evoke, abstractly, the dark nights of political prisoners. After a swooping, squalling opening, come wavery vibrato, toneless aspirations, croaks, cartoonish sound effects, even whistling: almost any sound mouths can deliver. Here it was tuning forks all around.
The performances were well received, and rightly so, though it was clear that many in the audience were hoping for an encore from the Ensemble Basiani, which never came.
Mr. Aimard threw himself into the fray for the late-night concert in the Little Night Music series at the Kaplan Penthouse, playing harpsichord in the Trio Sonata from Bach's ''Musical Offering'' and piano in the rest of the program: two canons from the ''Musical Offering''; three solo pieces by Mr. Carter (''Riconoscenza,'' for violin; ''Scrivo in Vento,'' for flute; and ''Tri-Tribute,'' for piano); and Ligeti's Horn Trio. Mr. Aimard was joined by members of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, all excellent.
The Bach sonata represented a mix of performance styles. Mats Zetterqvist, the violinist, and Clara Andrada de la Calle, the flutist, added basically modern sonorities to Mr. Aimard's harpsichord. But Luise Buchberger, the cellist, played the continuo line with much less vibrato, a period touch that added a nice directness to the statements of Frederick the Great's theme in the first Allegro.
Jonathan Williams, a horn player, expertly filled out the ensemble for the Ligeti. Ludovic Morlot conducts the International Contemporary Ensemble in the last concert of Bach and Polyphonies on Monday evening at the Rose Theater in the Time Warner Center; (212) 721-6500, mostlymozart.org.
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