A guide to Ligeti’s Violin Concerto and its best recordings
Steph Power is entranced by all manner of dazzling soundworlds as she explores the best recordings of Ligeti’s Violin Concerto, a 20th-century virtuoso showstopper
György Ligeti’s wild, radiantly paradoxical Violin Concerto has captured the imagination like few other modernist works of the last 30 – even 50 – years. The piece was composed between 1989 and ’93 for the German violinist Saschko Gawriloff.
Initially in three movements, it was premiered in that form by Gawriloff and the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra under conductor Gary Bertini in 1990. Ligeti then revised the first movement and added a further two – a version premiered by Gawriloff in 1992 with Ensemble Modern, conducted by Peter Eötvös. Subsequent re-orchestration of the third and fourth movements produced the definitive, five-movement work heard today.
The rigorous composition process was characteristic of Ligeti. In the 1990 programme booklet he wrote: ‘I compose very slowly, destroying ten or 20 attempts before attaining the final score … the creation of art is not an everyday task and I must achieve, without compromise, the end result which is my imagined ideal.’
A guide to the music of Ligeti’s Violin Concerto
He was 66 when he began the concerto, and long recognised as one of Europe’s greatest living composers. He was also a strong individualist who had come to occupy a unique position at the core, and yet sceptical, of the avant garde – a seeming contradiction that his Violin Concerto richly encapsulates while transcending in its Bartókian appeal. Full of outlandish timbres, abrupt swerves and expressive extremes, the piece is an extraordinary feat of imagination – and it requires just that from its virtuoso soloist, conductor and 22-piece chamber orchestra.
Indeed, every player becomes a soloist as Ligeti draws on a kaleidoscope of sounds and techniques: from medieval hocket to renaissance ostinato and Baroque chorale; Eastern European folksong to Congolese polyrhythm; Romantic lyricism and modal tonality to complex dissonance and untempered tunings; ethereal dreamworlds to profound melancholy and surreal humour; sometimes all at once, and saturated with an underlying ambivalence.
With self-borrowing thrown into the mix (there’s a melody from his 1951-3 Musica ricercata, for instance), it all amounts to a virtual compression of Ligeti’s career within one brilliantly taut piece. Multiple contrasts are not simply juxtaposed, however, but integrated within the context of recent discoveries in ways quietly as radical as those he pioneered in earlier years.
In the 1960s, colour-packed works such as the Lux aeterna (1966) – famously purloined by film director Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey – had established Ligeti at the vanguard of new techniques and soundworlds.
However, while peers like Stockhausen and Boulez craved freedom from the past, Ligeti found himself seeking freedom from the orthodoxy they themselves came to represent. An exile from Soviet-dominated Hungary, he loathed dogma and ultimately refused to reject a heritage that included diatonicism and indigenous traditions.
Yet Ligeti was also far from the nostalgic that some hearing his Brahms-dedicated Horn Trio in 1982 feared he might have become. On the contrary, he was driven by a modernist impulse to interrogate the past through the present and vice versa. This he did with great curiosity and skill, savouring ‘irregularities’ and the ‘disorganised’, as he put it, from within ‘a set of rules adequate to the idea’. Tellingly, he noted of his Piano Etudes: ‘In my music, one finds neither that which one might call the “scientific” nor the “mathematical”; but rather a unification of construction with poetic, emotional imagination.’
The Violin Concerto wonderfully showcases these principles. Ligeti was much taken by 1980s theories of chaos and fractal mathematics, and the piece reflects a corresponding, almost synaesthetic fascination with colour, pattern and form. Incorporating ancient and non-Western microtonality, an orchestral violinist and violist tune their instruments to an ‘out of tune’ natural harmonic from the double bass, creating an eerie effect heightened by natural horns and wobbly ocarinas.
Similarly, complex matrices inspired by the discovery of Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano studies, and of ‘marvellous, polyphonic, polyrhythmic’ African music, push asymmetric folk tunes and counterpoint into unexpected realms across bars and polymetres, creating dense yet intricate, volatile textures.
Through and above all this the soloist soars, skitters and laments in ways that are as unleashed as they are ultimately grounded in familiar concerto traditions. With co-creative spirit, Ligeti invites the player to compose their own final cadenza if they so wish, or perform the one originally written by Gawriloff using discarded early material.
The best recordings of Ligeti’s Violin Concerto
Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin)
Ensemble Modern/Peter Eötvös
The stars quite simply align in this stupendous 2012 recording by Moldovan violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja with Ensemble Modern and Peter Eötvös – the ensemble and conductor who had premiered the five-movement Violin Concerto in 1992.
Of course, the soloist then was Ligeti’s dedicatee, Saschko Gawriloff, whose subsequent premiere recording with Ensemble InterContemporain and Pierre Boulez continues to set an eloquently high bar. But Kopatchinskaja takes things into altogether new dimensions, conjuring a performance that feels wrought from her very nerves and sinew.
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Wonderfully precise and controlled, she and the ensemble still manage to convey the sense of spontaneity and risk inherent in a score full of startling gestures and unusual sounds. The result is a kind of transitional space in which technical brilliance and playful theatricality exist to serve mercurial, deeply felt emotions. Crucially, this underlines the distinctly eastern European sensibility from which the concerto springs: where microtones and complex cross-rhythms are customarily part of music’s expressive fabric – and where folk traditions are not just part of history, but a lived reality.
In the Praeludium, Kopatchinskaja’s initial, open-fifth arpeggios are blurred with particular immediacy by ‘mis-tunings’ as the ensemble joins her, indicating the simultaneous tension and enchantment to come. Ligeti described the character of this first movement as ‘glassy, shimmering’ and its diaphanous harmonics as ‘the expression of fragility and danger’. And so it exquisitely proves, leading to a second movement Aria – Hoquetus – Choral rich with the molten yearning of its central folk melody.
The movement scheme of the concerto is broadly fast-slow-fast-slow-fast, and Kopatchinskaja and Eötvös create a ferocious intensity that links each to the other, maximising Ligeti’s extreme dynamics and articulation while making sense of sudden interruptions and hiatuses on the very brink of disintegration.
A macabrely spectral Intermezzo becomes a helter-skelter ride from which the Passacaglia calmly unfolds. But most astonishing is how every contradictory aspect of Ligeti’s invention is gathered into the final Appassionato. The cadenza is Kopatchinskaja’s own, an outpouring of unbridled virtuosity that celebrates like no other this passionately enigmatic work.
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)
Zimmermann’s masterly rendition was recorded in 2002 under the composer’s watch. Conductor Reinbert de Leeuw and the Asko/Schönberg Ensemble create sublimely balanced sonorities through which the violin sings with supple elegance and an unerring sense of purpose and direction. Ligeti’s extremes of tessitura – ultra-high horns, piccolo and percussion contrasting laconic low flutes, cellos and clarinets – are delivered with unrivalled otherworldly clarity. The resulting tensions are thrillingly pushed to the limits of bearability.
Jeanne-Marie Conquer (violin)
Brilliantly teamed with Ensemble InterContemporain and Matthias Pintscher, Conquer’s 2015 disc brings rich warmth and resonance, allied with adventurous spirit. Contrasting modes of attack are thoughtfully, edgily delivered, conveying the impression, for example, of the violin grappling for a hold within a skittering Aria – Hoquetus – Choral. The ensuing, embattled Intermezzo gives way to a compellingly schizoid Passacaglia and Appassionato, the energy almost but not quite carried through into the cadenza. Nonetheless, the harmonics here are exquisitely unsettling.
Augustin Hadelich (violin)
Supported by the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Hadelich delivers a passionate, highly personal account. Combining swashbuckling drama with whistling insouciance, he locates the off-kilter serenity in Ligeti’s chromatic lyricism, finding ways through generous glissandos and vibrato to an elastic yet focused sense of pitch and rhythm. The principal interest of this 2019 recording, though, is Thomas Adès’s cadenza: a homage to Ligeti that’s at once touching, urbane and wonderfully absurd.
And one to avoid…
There are many beguiling aspects to this 2000 recording from Christina Åstrand with the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, not least their bold enjoyment of the spectral smudge afforded by Ligeti’s non-tempered tunings, lotus flutes and ocarinas. But the overall conception doesn’t quite come together, and some curiously executed ensemble does nothing to dispel the impression of a patchwork