Miklós Perényi: Britten/Bach/Ligeti (ECM New Series 2152)

Miklós Perényi

Miklós Perényi violoncello
Recorded November 2009, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

I first encountered Benjamin Britten’s opus 87, the 1971 Third Suite for solo cello, as played by Steven Isserlis, and in the towering company, no less, of John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil. Whereas there it came across as an unexpected, if enchanting, epilogue to the Virgin Classics release in question, here it opens an unquestionably cohesive program at the horsehairs of Hungarian cellist Miklós Perényi. Heard previously on ECM for a survey with András Schiff of Beethoven’s music for cello and piano, here he offers a distillation, a community of symbols rich in affect and unity. As Paul Griffiths notes, Perényi “is playing the cello to present music by Britten, Bach and Ligeti, and at the same time playing music by Britten, Back and Ligeti to present the cello.” Such is the circle of life—a circle that smiles and winks as much as it keens and weeps—that guides his craft and abets full disclosure of Britten’s abounding curiosity in the first of many shorter movements, its pizzicato mantra whispering beneath gravid suspensions from the bow. But there the solemnity ends, as the cello leaps from its pitted stasis and drapes itself like a ribbon from a branch swaying in the wind of the third movement. The fourth gives the most obvious shades of Bach, dancing through a jagged fifth and eighth, and swirling into the distended groans of the ninth.

In light—or is it dark?—of this flowing palindrome, the D-major Sixth Suite of J. S. Bach unfolds in an architecture as naked as Perenyi’s instrument. If its Prélude were any more immaculate in its affirmations, then its balance would crumble. The final note, here drawn without vibrato in pure and throated song, leaves us poised heavenward for the Allemande’s seesawing descent. A will to live pervades, seeming to clutch at earthly things as might a pauper’s hands to trinkets and baubles. The Sarabande is a thing of beauty (one that puts me in mind of Ingmar Bergman’s film of the same name) and passes us through the mimetic Gavottes before double stops galore surround us in the final Gigue.

György Ligeti’s Sonata (1948/53) expresses, like much of his chamber music, a world of ideas in relatively microscopic terms. Although a touch of humor nuances the title (this “Sonata” only has two movements), the goings on feel like darkness upon darkness. Alternating between lute-like strums and mournful bowings, the first half lends brightness to the second, which at its fulcrum returns to the fingers, spinning lyric from prisms and breath.

Perényi is that rare cellist who plays Bach as if for the first time while approaching less performed works like Britten’s as if they’ve always been here. It is the solitary pursuit of melody and time through an instrument corporeal, of which the cello is infant, elder, and every age between.

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