György Ligeti: Concertos for Cello, Violin and Piano*

Review written for the magazine "El Veinte" (Madrid, December 1994), that did not arrive to be published

We may be wrong, but many of us think that the 20th is, in addition to a wonderful magazine, a century that will be remembered in a very special way in the future. Of course, that should not worry us when it comes to living it, but we cannot avoid, in an examination of historical conscience, confront it with the past in order, like a crystal ball based on hindsight, to extract consequences that allow us to glimpse the future. Collapsed the 18th century, the century of the rational par excellence, the 19th century marks the empire of imbalance, of the unpredictability that the primacy of sentiment implies over any other logic. Son of both is this 20th schizoid, in which everything continues to be equally unpredictable and uncertain but, at the same time, everything seems to want to be subjected to the most ironclad of possible intellectual controls.
In continuous debate with itself, the 20th century has come out badly or well from the passing of the continuous contradictions between the different attitudes towards the inherited tradition: paraphrasing Ortega, the most radical aesthetic positions range from that of the paralitic to that of the epileptic, fitting in between all the others, in a curious amalgam and more or less peaceful coexistence. By presenting the problem -very well-known, on the other hand- in its most Manichean form, it could be said that all the positions are agglutinated around those that integrate her artistic production in said tradition, being captured by it as if it were a black hole, and those others that reject, despise or deny it, pretending that impossible thing which is "starting from scratch." The middle road may be the only one that does not lead to Rome, as Schoenberg had already warned us in the preface to his Satires, and Adorno opportunely reminded us on the first page of his Philosophy of New Music, but today it is still the only one where to find virtue, if by it we understand a positive attitude of progress, of healthy evolution, insofar as it rests on the firm ground provided by a tradition from which it takes off, on which it turns or to which return, as dictated by the poetic demands of each work, and without more mortgages than those that the author himself is suitable and is willing to assume.
It is clear that the music of György Ligeti (Romania, 1923) is tinged with that indefinable wisdom that can only be reached when one is at the exact (aesthetic) point at the exact moment, one knows how to take advantage of such an infrequent conjuncture, and one possesses, in addition to sensitivity, an artistic mastery capable of surpassing itself in each new work. From the hand of Pierre Boulez at the head of the Ensamble Intercontemporain, we receive a record jewel that constitutes the palpable demonstration of what we have been saying since the beginning of this chronicle. These are, no less, the Concertos for Piano, Cello and Violin, in anthological versions starring Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Jean-Guihen Queyras and Saschko Gawriloff, respectively, as soloists.
Thanks to this recording, and in just over 67 minutes, we can "make our" three very special works within Ligeti's catalog, as well as contemplate the evolution of his musical thought throughout the 26 years that separate the Cello concerto ( 1966) of the Violin (1990-1992), among which is the Piano (1985-1988), closer to the latter in time and, consequently, in aesthetics.
The edition, very careful in every way, is no less so in regard to the strategic order in which the three Concertos take place. Conscious, undoubtedly, of the habit of rectilinear listening by the average listener, those in charge propose a slight but significant alteration in the order of the works in relation to the chronology of their composition. Thus, instead of beginning the audition with the Concerto for cello and orchestra, the first written, the recording invites us to do so with the Piano concerto, reserving for the former the central place. This "jump back" that occurs in listening allows us to capture, by facilitating the confrontation between works so separated in the inner evolution of the author's language, a series of revealing nuances that perhaps would have gone unnoticed had the three Concertos been arranged in a conventional chronological order.
It does not seem risky to consider that this planning is directed, somewhat tendentiously, to provoke in the listener the feeling that these three Concertos constitute a single work, based on a monolithic formal ideal, the perfection of which has been pursued by Ligeti for almost three decades, until it was reached in the last of them (without forgetting the relative aspect of the whole matter, be careful: to mere mortals, what cannot be perfect for the gods seems perfect to us: with all certainty, Ligeti will continue looking for his own ideal of perfection, from which perhaps a future Concerto will emerge). And it is in this unitary vision when we see clearly that the place that the Concerto for cello and orchestra occupies, without a doubt, in Ligeti's thought, is that of slow movement -central movement, therefore- of that great concerto ideal that boils in his thought and from time to time he lets us see a piece.
Considered as a global work or as three independent works, the truth is that these three Concertos are three magnificent, astonishing pieces, in which Ligeti shows us in extremis his luminous imagination, for using an adjective so dear to his thought (presto luminoso, vivacissimo luminoso... for not leaving the scope of this recording), especially with regard to the timbral aspect: from the pianistic treatment of the orchestra, without for this reason each instrument losing its timbral individuality, in the Piano concerto, up to the practice of timbral cancellation developed in the Cello concerto, almost centered on the unison of the different parameters as a generating element of multiple branches. New in Ligetiís recorded music is the Concerto for violin and orchestra, which justifies much of the expectation generated by the recording, and therefore perhaps deserves a somewhat more extensive comment.
In the last of his Concertos, Ligeti dazzles us with an aesthetic proposal in keeping with the times, as it involves wise reflection and correct synthesis between current thinking and inherited tradition. Thus, along with passages in which we find the characteristic features of his writing (such as those melodies that sprout, like sparkles, from textures based on the incessant movement of small atoms [it is impossible to avoid the reference to the Continuum for harpsichord], giving instead of curious superimpositions of tempi, or those cantabile passages, whose expressive force resides in the inaccessibility of their tessitura), lines in which the approach to tradition powerfully attracts attention, due to the violent connection that they suppose in the discourse, coexist a tense load resulting from the alert caused in the listener by distrust in the face of what is all too familiar: from harmonious well-sounding passages, such as those that open the Concerto, to the almost paganinian virtuosity of some moments of the fantastic cadenza with which it closes, going through the use of forms whose inheritance wants to be evident already from the very title of the movements: Aria (long and beautiful modal, flokloric melody), Hoquetus, Coral, Passacaglia... (need we say more?). And a final detail, which surprises me is not mentioned in the comments -excellent, on the other hand- that illustrate the recording: the four long notes (F#, E, D, C), in the upper register of the solo violin, on a faint background of woods, at the beginning of the fourth movement, reproduce, in opposite movement and duly transported, the last four of the series used by Alban Berg in his Concerto for violin and orchestra, which, as is well known, are the first of the coral Es ist genug, which is cited, in its Bachian harmonization, by the clarinets. The synthesis of the personal with the traditional is also joined by the homage, in the form of a covert appointment, to the most important violin concerto of the 20th century.
In short: a recording without waste, which allows to evaluate, through the best imaginable interpretation of three of his most interesting works, the trajectory and current state of thought of one of the most unquestionable figures in contemporary musical creation.

Jose Luis Turina
Madrid, November 1994

* GYÖRGY LIGETI: Concerts for Cello, Violin and Piano (Jean-Guihen Queyras - Saschko Gawriloff - Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Ensemble Intercontemporain. Conductor: Pierre Boulez). Reference: Deutsche Grammophon 439 808-2