Beyond Control: Ligeti’s Violin Concerto

Sometimes you witness a performance that is so incredible, so out-of-the-ordinary that it sticks with you and will just not leave you alone. That’s just what happened a few days ago when I attended a performance of György Ligeti’s Violin Concerto.

Programmed as the conclusion to Augustin Hadelich‘s recital at the Aspen Music Festival—a forward-looking program of pieces by Francisco Coll, Stephen Hartke, and Tōru Takemitsu—Ligeti’s concerto is a wildly virtuosic workout for the soloist and presents almost every technique from the string player’s bag of tricks. The accompanying chamber orchestra (in which four of the players double on ocarinas!) is also no mere supporting role; many of the players’ parts are tremendously challenging to execute.

Sound-wise, the Violin Concerto is a far cry from Ligeti’s “sound mass” compositions of the 1960s, such as Atmosphères and Lux aterna—both made famous (or infamous?) in 2001: A Space Odyssey. By the 1980s and 1990s, Ligeti had begun to hone a style that reconciled avant-garde elements with the eclecticism of postmodernism. His Violin Concerto (composed, premiered, and revised between 1989 and 1993) is written with this sensibility in mind, embracing everything from medieval music to Classical forms, from the virtuosic Caprices of Paganini to folk music. This creates a work that’s a sort of a stylistic “grab bag”—one that is not fully tonal and traditional, but not fully avant-garde.

Sounds intriguing, right? Well, I thought so too going into the concert. I was already familiar with Ligeti’s music and this piece from YouTube videos and performances on the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall. But nothing would prepare me for hearing it live.

As valid as this statement often is, it’s become almost cliché to say that hearing the live performance is better than the recording but in this case, hearing the live performance is better than the recordingInstrumental colors and textures arose that are only fleetingly captured on record. Ligeti’s use of scordatura tuning (where some of the string players are instructed to make their instruments slightly out-of-tune) creates a surprising acoustic curiosity and the ocarina quartet—which hovers in and out of the concerto’s five movements—adds a fascinating layer to Ligeti’s haunting soundworld. (The second movement, in particular, is stunningly beautiful; it’s based on a modal melody used in Ligeti’s 1953 composition Musica ricercata.)

There are moments of calm and stillness throughout, to be sure, but there are also points when the music builds into an ecstatic frenzy, pushing both the soloist and the players to their absolute limits. Perhaps the most jaw-dropping moment occurs in the cadenza near the end of the final movement. Here, as the orchestra falls silent, the soloist pulls out all the remaining stops and wildly recounts themes and motifs from the previous four movements. The whole display can seem out-of-control, but also makes sense in the context of the preceding material.

In the score, Ligeti encourages players to contribute their own cadenza, and in his recital, Hadelich performed one that was written in 2011 by the British composer Thomas Adès. It’s a showstopper, to say the least:

Here’s another (and entirely different!) take on the final cadenza by the Moldovan violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, which features some extra, highly-entertaining theatrical elements:

Needless to say, Ligeti’s concerto is definitely not easy-listening music, but it is music that leads you on a fascinating journey—one that’s sometimes peaceful, sometimes scary, sometimes wacky, but always full of surprises. Hadelich’s performance of the work left me speechless and gave me a potent reminder of the raw power of live music.

As I made my way out of the concert hall, I heard one young concertgoer remark: “I actually liked it! It was so cheeky!”

True that.


For those readers who are interested and willing to stretch their ears, here is both a video and audio recording of the entire concerto:

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