Regular readers know that I have taken a great personal interest in the Finnish Ondine label, which has provided an excellent platform for composers on the “bleeding edge” of modernism, such as Magnus Lindberg, as well as their recent predecessors, such as Kaija Saariaho, both Finnish composers whose music deserves as much attention as it can get. I was therefore fascinated to learn that, at the end of last month, Ondine released a recording that provided my first encounter of their treatment of a composer who was not Finnish.
That composer is the Hungarian György Ligeti, who died in 2006 and, in many respects, now enjoys “grand old man” status as an influence on composers such as Saariaho and Lindberg. There is still a “Finnish” connection through the performers, Hannu Lintu conducting the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra; but the soloist, violinist Benjamin Schmid, is Austrian. (Schmid’s previous recording on Ondine with this musicians involved an even “grander old man,” also nit Finnish, since it included a performance of Max Reger’s violin concerto.)
On this new recording Schmid is performing the violin concerto that Ligeti first began as a three-movement composition in 1989 and then revised into five-movement form, which he completed in 1993. I first encountered this concerto in a performance given by violinist Christian Tetzlaff with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. This was the first time SFS had performed the concerto; and, to my surprise, the year was 2012. I found this particularly surprising, since Ligeti had a great love for the Bay Area and spent a generous amount of his time here.
My previous reference to Ligeti’s influence applies particularly to his attention to sonority as a structural element as significant as contrapuntal voice leading and harmonic progressions. While Ligeti is best known for realizing his sonorities through large masses of instruments and voices, in the violin concerto the soloist is accompanied by a chamber orchestra in which every line is a solo part. Two of the string players, one violin and one viola, have their strings tuned down a quarter tone; and each of the wind players doubles on an ocarina. (Each performer has a different size of this folk instrument, which used to be called a “potato flute” when I was a kid.) Finally, the ensemble requires two percussionists, each of whom doubles on a slide whistle.
The result is one of the more striking uses of microtonality that can be found among the many twentieth-century efforts to seek out the cracks between the piano keys. The sound of the ocarinas playing as a choir in the second movement is positively enchanting. More importantly, however, the microtones are not used for the sake of what one of my teachers liked to call “slimy chromaticism” but rather allowed Ligeti to explore different approaches to intonation, not only in early periods in which intervals were based on the integer ratios of the third and fifth harmonics but also in the pursuit of upper harmonics that are poorly accommodated by the equal-tempered scale of twelve semitones to the octave. That reflection back on those early periods also emerges through the structure of the concerto itself, which is more of a partita, whose movements are based on traditional forms. (The ocarinas, for example, provide accompaniment for a hocket-like reworking of a violin solo initially introduced as an aria.)
On this recording both soloist and conductor clearly appreciate the transparency of Ligeti’s scoring. As a result, while there is a tendency to classify Ligeti as a “complex” composer, due to the thickness (and dissonance) of his textures, this is a highly accessible performance in which, for the most part, dissonance emerges only as an “alternative consonance” arising from a different tuning system. This concerto thus emerges as one of Ligeti’s most lyrical expressions, and this recording encourages the listener to enjoy the full extent of that lyricism.
The concerto also provides a valuable context for approaching the older compositions that take up the remainder of the disc. The earliest of these is the 1961 “Atmosphères.” This is probably Ligeti’s best-known composition, thanks to its appropriation by Stanley Kubrick; and it gave many their first encounter with what Ligeti could do with really thick instrumental textures. The recording also includes the 1967 “Lontano,” which is just as thick in texture but not quite as aggressive as “Atmosphères,” and the 1974 “San Francisco Polyphony,” which, after he completed it, Ligeti associated with the rich polyphonic textures of Gustav Mahler and Alban Berg. In Lintu’s interpretation, one can appreciate the extent to which Ligeti refashioned his approach to complex polyphony around a more “conversational” rhetoric, which was probably the feature that inspired the associations he cited. (Personally, I hear a bit of Richard Strauss in there, too, particularly in his handling of the string parts.)
There are now any number of recordings available that the listener can sample to cultivate an appreciation of Ligeti’s work. This new one offers up just the right balance of technical discipline and expressive understanding. It thus makes for an excellent “first contact” recording; but those already familiar with the compositions are likely to find themselves listening to this “old master” in new ways.