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György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Lontano (1967) [15:47]
Violin Concerto (1989-93)* [28:25]
Atmosphères (1961) [10:00]
San Francisco Polyphony (1973-74) [13:41]
Benjamin Schmid (violin)*
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu
rec. Helsinki Music Centre, Helsinki, Finland, 1-2 March 2013 (San Francisco Polyphony), 29-31 August 2012 (other works)
ONDINE ODE 1213-2 [68:22]

Some composers suffer an eclipse after their death, but György Ligeti is clearly not one of them. If anything, his fame - even popularity - has only increased since he died in 2006. His was a unique voice that holds its own in these times of seeming retrogression to an earlier era where immediate gratification by the listener is paramount. Ligeti, on the other hand, will always be “ahead of his time” and give the listener something more than surface appeal.
The selections on this disc are as good a place as any for the newcomer to this composer to get an appreciation for what is so exciting about Ligeti’s way of expressing himself in music. Here are seminal works of the 1960s’ avant-garde, the richer palette of the 1970s, and the magnificent summing up of his whole compositional life that the Violin Concerto represents.
Atmosphères and Lontano are two of Ligeti’s most famous compositions, as they contain his trademark micropolyphonic sound of the 1960s. These works are concerned with texture and are basically static. They comprise sound clusters that depend on dynamics for variation but seem like unbroken lines of dense sound. They hold the listener’s attention by their changing dynamics and orchestral color. Atmosphères became famous by its use in Stanley Kubrick’s film, 2001-A Space Odyssey without the composer’s permission, which upset Ligeti to no small degree. However, it soon made Ligeti famous in the West.
The benchmark recordings of this music are found in Volume II of Teldec’s Ligeti Project, as performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Jonathan Nott. Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony hold their own against those recordings and put a different interpretative slant on the music. They in fact have a slight advantage in that the background of the recorded sound is totally silent, whereas the Teldec recordings were apparently recorded live and some background noise is apparent when listening on headphones. On the other hand, the Berliners produce greater contrast in the dynamics and, therefore, increase interest in these pieces. Lintu’s tempos are broader than Nott’s, but overall this makes little difference. I am happy to have heard these new performances, but will likely return to the Teldec recordings whenever I want to listen to this music.
With San Francisco Polyphony we enter a more complex and colourful phase in Ligeti’s career. Rhythm now plays an important role and there is a great deal of activity occurring in the large orchestra. Hannu Lintu himself wrote the programme notes for this CD, where he discusses the “independent existence” of certain instrumental details in this work. This effect is “highlighted by certain instruments detaching themselves from the conductor’s pulse and acting independently” before they are brought back into line. I am reminded here of Lutosławski’s aleatoric methods, but Ligeti’s digressions apparently are not ad libitum as they are with the Polish composer. Lintu has the measure of this score, but again is up against Nott on the same Teldec volume as the other two works. My comments on the contrasting accounts for those also stand for San Francisco Polyphony. One’s preference may be determined by what else is accompanying this music on each CD. For Nott, it is Ligeti’s first substantial orchestral score, Apparitions, and the early, folksy, and humorous Concert Românesc, both in world première recordings. This new disc has one of Ligeti’s greatest and increasingly popular concertos.
One could say that the Violin Concerto is a microcosm of Ligeti’s whole output in under 30 minutes duration, a true summing up of his career. It goes back to his Transylvanian roots and contains folk-like material that he used much earlier in his compositions, such as the second movement melody he deployed in the Bagatelles for Wind Quintet. At the same time it incorporates elements from Medieval and Renaissance music as well as micro-tonality. This can give the work an otherworldly sound that Lintu describes from the way instruments are tuned: “Two of the accompanying string instruments are tuned according to an overtone series borrowed from the double bass. The violin is tuned sharper and the viola a quarter tone flatter than the solo violin and the other strings in the ensemble.” At times this deliberate playing out of tune gives one a slightly queasy feeling, yet the Romantic nature of the work’s themes readily stays with the listener. The concerto is scored for solo violin and a chamber orchestra that includes natural horns and ocarinas along with the usual instruments. It is not just a colourful work, but in my opinion the most important violin concerto of the late twentieth-century and one that has received numerous outstanding performances. Before this recording there were at least four available on CD: the première recording by Saschko Gawriloff with Pierre Boulez (DG)-the work was commissioned by Gawriloff, who supplied the cadenza in the last movement; Christina Åstrand with Thomas Dausgaard (Chandos); Frank Peter Zimmermann with Reinbert de Leeuw (Vol. III of Teldec’s Ligeti Project); and most recently, Patricia Kopatchinskaja with Peter Eötvös (Naïve). Most violinists have used Gawriloff’s cadenza, or a variation of it, as Benjamin Schmid does here. Kopatchinskaja is the exception, as she devised her own more extensive cadenza for her account. All of these performances are excellent, but Kopatchinskaja’s is in a class by itself. Her disc was one of my favourite recordings of 2013. Schmid does not reach the same level of communication and bravura, but his is a committed performance nonetheless. Lintu and a reduced Finnish Radio Symphony accompany very well and the sound allows much wonderful detail to come through.
As indicated above, Lintu provides notes on the works, which are concise but contain valuable information. The performances may not supersede the others I have listed, but they are all worthy in their own right. The programme on this CD would seem to be an ideal place to obtain a good sampling of Ligeti’s music. If it appeals, do not hesitate.
Leslie Wright