Saturday 16 November 2013

Performances that couldn’t be bettered from Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra with violinist, Benjamin Schmid, on a new Ligeti disc from Ondine

The composer György Sándor Ligeti (1923-2006)  was born in Transylvania, Romania, the son of Hungarian-Jewish parents. He studied at the Conservatory in Klausenburg, Romania with Ferenc Farkas and at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest with Sándor Veress, Pál Járdányi and Lajos Bárdos. Following the failure of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, he left his native country for both political and artistic reasons.

For a while he worked freelance at the West German Radio studio for electronic music in Cologne before undertaking a study of the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mauricio Kagel and Pierre Boulez. In the 1960s, Ligeti was associate professor at the Summer School for Contemporary Music in Darmstadt and guest professor at the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in Stockholm.  He became Professor of Composition at the Hamburg Musikhochschulein in 1973.

It was whilst working in the Cologne recording studio in 1958 that Ligeti caused a sensation with his electronic composition Artikulation (1958). Works that followed, such as Apparitions (1958-59) and Atmosphères (1961) brought him fame throughout the music world. In these works from the late 1950s and 1960s, the concept of an extremely densely interwoven voice structure was increasingly contrasted with static tonal-spatial compositions. Ligeti’s full-length stage work Le Grand Macabre was composed between 1974 and 1977 (revised version 1996) and was based on a fable by Michel de Ghelderode.

In the 1980s and 1990s, in such works as Etudes pour piano, complex polyrhythmic compositional techniques come to the fore. During the same period, Ligeti was working on the solo concertos for Piano and Orchestra (1985-88), Violin and Orchestra (1990/92) and the Hamburg Concerto for horn und chamber orchestra (1998/99

Ligeti was the recipient of many awards and prizes including Commandeur dans l'Ordre National des Arts et Lettres, Prix de composition musicale de la Fondation Prince Pierre de Monaco (both in 1988), the Music Prize from the Balzan Foundation (1991), the Ernst-von-Siemens  Music Prize (1993), the UNESCO-IMC Music Prize (1996), honorary membership  in the Rumanian Academy (1997) and nomination as Associé étranger der Académie des Beaux Arts (1998), the Sibelius Prize from the Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation (2000), the Kyoto Prize for Art and Science (2001), the Medal for Art and Science from the Senate of the City of Hamburg (2003), the Theodor W. Adorno Prize from the City of Frankfurt (2003) and the Polar Music Prize from the Royal Music Academy of Sweden (2004).

György Ligeti died in Vienna on 12 June 2006.

Orchestral works from across Ligeti’s compositional life have been gathered together on a new release from Ondine with violinist, Benjamin Schmid , and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu
ODE 1213-2

Lontano (1967) is a largely micropolyphonic work, a technique that is best described as having polyphonic musical texture which consists of many lines of dense canons, moving at different tempos or rhythms, thus resulting in vertical tone clusters. This work opens with a long held note before other woodwind join as the music slowly broadens and moves around in this endlessly fascinating and atmospheric opening. This strange music is quite beautiful, especially in the sensitive performance given by Hannu Lintu and his Finnish players. Shimmering strings rise and fall with brass and woodwind, high up in their register adding an ethereal solidity. When the tuba, double bassoon and contrabass clarinet join, they give an amazingly deep sound, entering from the depths and slowly growling as they try to rise up.

Gentle sounds high up in the orchestra make a brief appearance as the deeper sounds hover around, until being allowed to rise, blending with the upper wind instrument sounds. The strings swirl and shift as the music reaches a plateau before falling away at a point where there are some lovely brass textures. Eventually a hushed section is reached with shimmering strings before a long held wind passage arises from the hushed texture.  When the wind instruments rise up beautifully above the low hovering strings, reinforced by high shimmering strings, it precedes a magical moment when the music suddenly drops to a hush as the music leads to a quiet, deep still with the sounds of something shifting in the depths.

In 1967 this would probably have been challenging. Now, within the context of history, it is revealed as a work of quiet power and beauty.

The next work on this disc, Ligeti’s Violin Concerto (1989-1993), jumps forward in time by over 20 years. The composer creates, in this work, some strange sonorities by use of the ceramic flute and natural horns as well as requiring two of the accompanying string instruments, a violin and viola to be tuned a quarter tone flatter than the soloist and other strings of the orchestra. In five movements, the first, Praeludium, starts with an insistent motif on the strings that soon gives way to a shifting, rising and falling microtonal motif with sharp interruptions from the solo violin, as a complex pattern emerges. Eventually the violin plays a constantly shifting theme that dances around rapidly until it reduces to a quixotic theme with trumpet before the violin ruminates on the theme. The dancing motif returns before the music falls away to end.

In the second movement, Aria, Hoquetus, Choral, the solo violin enters in a lovely flowing melody, soon joined by a viola. The woodwind enter to accompany the solo violin followed by natural horns playing a dissonant counterpoint. The distinctive sound of the ceramic flute appears whilst the solo violin plays pizzicato before settling on a rather skittish theme around the slower sound of the ceramic flute. The solo violin provides some intense textures to contrast with the horns, then with the ceramic flute there is a dramatically dissonant sound with pizzicato orchestral strings adding to the dissonance. Eventually the music drops to quiet wind sounds as the dissonance falls away and the melodic solo violin returns that, nevertheless, quietly recalls the dissonant chords. A flute plays a quiet, gentle, swaying melody to conclude the movement.

The Intermezzo brings the solo violin entering high up over quietly rising and falling strings of the orchestra, developing a melody to which various brass and woodwind instruments add their contribution, all adding disparate motifs. Strangely, all of these sounds slowly combine as the solo violin continues its way forward with the opening melody, until rising to a climax together with brass bringing the music to a sudden end.

The Passacaglia opens quietly on woodwind but soon a hushed theme, high on the solo violin surreptitiously enters, other instruments enter as the music very slowly broadens and becomes more distinct. Yet still the solo violin keeps to its quiet high melody until a little outburst occurs and the solo violin takes on a more dominant and strident role with bold chords. Percussion enter as the solo violin provides more animated phrases, though there is an atmospheric, haunting underlying sound from the woodwind as the solo violin weaves ahead. These woodwind instruments continue to play slow phrases whilst the solo violin pushes ahead in a difficult, dissonant but highly effective passage until the timpani signal a brief climax leading to the coda.

A repeated solo violin motif opens Appassionato, against dissonant woodwind before the violin soon adopts aggressive staccato chords. The brass join in as the music has a descending motif, somewhat jazz like in tempo and rhythm. The solo violin enters again in a fast and furious section with the solo violin playing around a dancing woodwind figure before an orchestral outburst leads to the re-entry of a quiet, more subdued solo violin theme. This is soon fragmented with the orchestra and solo violin returning to a fast moving passage followed by a cadenza, more conventional in nature, before drums signal a sudden coda.

Benjamin Schmid is fabulous in this extremely taxing work, superbly accurate, sensitive and showing complete command in the complex music.

Atmospheres (1961) takes us back to Ligeti’s earlier phase of composition and opens with densely laden orchestral sounds from the bass before various instruments of the orchestra emerge from the mists to reach a more transparent shimmering texture. The music recedes but small orchestral motifs quietly emerge, slowly rising and becoming louder with strange ethereal sounds. Suddenly the music drops to growling basses only to give way to quiet swirling orchestral sounds. These swirling strings provide a short outburst as do the more intense sounds of the brass. Hushed murmurings from the strings, woodwind and brass appear before growls from the brass return, quietly this time, and the music disappears into nothing.

San Francisco Polyphony (1974) opens with swirling orchestral sounds with many orchestral instruments playing their own motifs and rhythms yet with an overall cohesion. At times, this work has the feel of a concerto for orchestra, such is the diversity of orchestral sounds. Soon there is a quiet, held orchestral passage, with something of an organ like sonority, out of which brass motifs emerge. Suddenly violent strings appear over the long held orchestral sound, followed by the woodwind quietly playing a rising motif over the orchestra. Eventually a richer melodic passage appears for full orchestra around which brass, woodwind and others swirl as the music appears to reach a climax but drops back. A bass drum sounds, a moment of great tension and anticipation as the quietly hovering orchestra seems to be about to erupt, yet it only slowly rises with scurrying orchestral sounds. There is a crash from the tam tam before the orchestra quietens. The music swirls to a number of climatic moments with chattering orchestral instrumental sounds before a final climax.

The violin concerto has many fine moments but it is the pure orchestral works from the 1960s and 1970s that I found really engrossing and often very beautiful. These performances from Hannu Lintu and Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra couldn’t be bettered.

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