Ligeti: Le grand macabre

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WORKS: Le grand macabre
PERFORMER: Sibylle Ehlert, Jard van Nes, Derek Lee Ragin, Graham Clark, Willard White; London Sinfonietta Voices, Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen
If Ligeti never completes another opera – and with every year that passes the chance seems more remote – then Le grand macabre will remain in solitary splendour, as his savagely humorous and emotionally powerful critique of the whole genre. Its raw materials are the essential operatic ingredients of sex, death, drink and power, and this everyday story of comic-cut folk in Brueghelland, based upon a play by the Belgian Michel de Ghelderode, is permeated with echoes of three-and-a-half centuries of operatic tradition, all refracted and parodied through Ligeti’s unique sound-world.


When the opera was staged by Peter Sellars at the Salzburg Festival in 1997, Ligeti took the opportunity to revise his 1977 score, tightening it structurally and transforming some of the speech into song; this recording was made at the Paris Châtelet when the production transferred there last year. The text is sung in English, which presents a bit of a problem for one or two of the polyglot cast, but the performance is otherwise scabrously intense: Graham Clark as the dypsomaniac common man Piet the Pot, Willard White as Nekrotzar, the ‘Grand Macabre’ himself, and Sibylle Ehlert in the stratospherically high coloratura role of the Chief of Police are all outstanding. And so too is the orchestral playing under Esa-Pekka Salonen: from the opening Car Horn Prelude to the final Passacaglia, which banishes all dissonance as if to suggest that there is still hope even after the end of everything, the whole score is vividly alive. Andrew Clements