One of the focuses of this year’s Proms, concentrated during the month of August, was the centennial of György Ligeti. The first of these, presented on August 11 by The London Philharmonic Orchestra, along with the London Philharmonic Choir, the Royal Northern College of Music Chamber Choir, and the Edvard Grieg Kor, conducted by Edward Gardner, started in what might be the most obvious place, especially for drawing a large audience, focusing on the music used in Stanley Kurbrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The movie certainly introduced Liget’s music to a larger audience than it had ever received before that time, and made him a sort of star, both of in new music circles and in the world at large. This concert included Ligeti’s Requiem and Lux Aeterna, and ended, inevitably, with Also sprach Zarathrustra by Richard Strauss. Robert Stein’s program note asserted that Ligeti’s Requiem, composed from 1963 to 1965, was an unexpected next piece to follow his Poèm symphonique, for 100 metronomes, of 1962, but in fact the micropolyphony of the choral and orchestra work is a pretty exact recreation of the texture produced by many metronomes clicking away simultaneously. In the Requiem, Ligeti aligns that micropolyphonic texture with a quite remarkable and highly personal sense of register and orchestral color, producing a new and striking musical character at just about every moment. The Lux Aeterna, for 16-part unaccompanied chorus, written in 1966, which was performed by the Edvard Grieg Kor, is more concentrated and refined, and even more striking, being a distillation and, if you like, condensation of the Requiem for sixteen unaccompanied voices. All of the performances were beyond reproach.

The Prom on August 15, presented by the Royal Philharmonic, conducted by Vasily Petrenko, started with Lotano by Ligeti. Written in 1967, Lotano is in the vein of the Requiem and Lux Aeterna, but concentrates on luminous orchestration. Lontano was followed by the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto, with Alexandre Kantorow, as soloist, in what seemed to me to be the best performance of anything I’d ever heard, Kantorow, as an encore, delivered a radiant performance of somebody’s arrangement of the Finale from The Firebird. The concert ended with the Shostakovich Tenth Symphony, written in 1953. Shostakovich had suffered serious humiliation and oppression during the later 1940s and early 1950, a certain amount of it aimed directly at him by Stalin. During that time he wrote a number of pieces which he simply didn’t release, realizing that they would cause him even more trouble. Stalin’s death in March of 1953 was a source of relief for the composer, and the Symphony seems to be a powerful expression both of that relief and its attendant relative freedom, as well as a reflection on aspects of the situation. The second movement, which is a relentless and caustic scherzo is said to be a portrait of Stalin. The performance of the piece was vivid and powerful. The whole concert was unforgettable.

The Prom on the evening of August 13 was presented by The Budapest Festival Orchestra, conducted by Iván Fischer, on the heels of their Audience Choice Proms that afternoon, in which the audience chose the program by vote as it went along, working from a menu provided to them. The evening began with Mysteries of the Macabre by Ligeti, an excerpt from his opera Le Grand Macabre, consisting of an aria for the Chief of the Secret Political Police, arranged by Elgar Howarth. The soloist for this was Anna-Lena Elbert, who, as was appropriate to the music it dramatic situation in the opera, was all over the stage, in a manner just as frenetic as the music she was singing. She was singing in German, but the text came think and fast and relentlessly, so one wasn’t able to actually get any words at all, which didn’t in any way detract from the absurd and funny effect of the piece. This was followed by Béla Bartok’s Third Piano Concerto, with Sir András Schiff as soloist. It received a lovely and heartfelt performance, as was appropriate to the valedictory nature of the piece. The concert concluded with the Beethoven Third Symphony. The playing all the way through the concert was as good as one could have ever expected.

The impression that Ligeti was presented only as the composer of his modernist, micropolyphonic, Space Odyssey music was rectified by the Prom on August 20, presented by Les Sièles and its conductor François-Xavier Roth. This concert included the Concert Românesc, representing the highly polished Bartokian music, infused with folk-like material, that Ligeti wrote before he fled Hungary for the west in 1956 and the Violin Concerto of 1989-93, with soloist Isabelle Faust, which gave full evidence of the highly multifaceted, multisourced and, at least for this listener, more fully satisfying music that he was writing toward the end of his life. The character of the two works and the progress and shape of each, are not dissimilar, even though the later piece is freer in its incorporation of different tunings and more ‘exotic’ instruments, such as ocarina and swanee whistles. It conveys the sense of Ligeti as a continually inquiring and endlessly curious musical personality. Les Siècles specializes in playing instruments and tunings appropriate to the particular repertory they are performing, so the Ligeti pieces on the first half of the concert were performed on modern instruments tuned to A=442Hz; the Mozart works on the second half of the concert, the 23rd Piano Concerto, with soloist Aleander Melnikov, and the 41st Symphony, were performed on Classical-period instruments tuned to A=430Hz.

All of these concerts can be heard on the BBC Sounds website.