György Ligeti – Organ Study No. 1 ‘Harmonies’ (1967)

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Although György Ligeti composed only three works for the organ, ‘Volumina’, ‘Harmonies’ and ‘Coulée’, these pieces mark significant stages in the course of his compositional development; more importantly, they revolutionised the world of organ music and provided the initial spark for an entire wave of New Music for the organ. ‘Volumina’ completely dispenses with the parameters normally used to structure time in a musical work, such as melody, rhythm and harmony.

The only active structural parameter in this music is the tone colour. The music is perceived more in a spatial than a temporal sense, with the title referring to differently dimensioned ‘stationary’ sound spaces.

In the 11-movement piano cycle ‘Musica ricercata’ Ligeti explores the possibilities of using the 12 chromatic semitones for composition. One of the movements was arranged for the organ by Ligeti himself; the others have been arranged by the organist Dominik Susteck. Susteck, who performed and recorded these works on the organ of Kunst- Station Sankt Peter in Cologne, also presents an original composition: his organ improvisations ‘Sprachsignale’ which are inspired by Ligeti’s piece ‘Artikulation’. Play loud!

Boguslaw Schäffer – Symphony (1966)

Symphony is the first work of any considerable length realised by the Experimental Studio of the Polish Radio; its composition was spread out over more than a year. The basic idea was to transpose into purely electronic music the notion of the assembly of sounds of different origin that the word “symphony” suggests. The realisation of the work demanded close co-operation between the composer and the engineer, Bohdan Mazurek, who contributed a great deal in the suggestion and provision of suitable apparatus. –David Rissin

Béla Bartók – Violin Concerto No. 2, BB 117 (1937–38)

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Béla Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2, BB 117 was written in 1937–38.

Bartók composed the concerto in a difficult stage of his life, when he was filled with serious concerns about the growing strength of fascism. He was of firm anti-fascist opinions, and therefore became the target of various attacks in pre-war Hungary.

Bartók initially planned to write a single-movement concerto set of variations, but Zoltán Székely wanted a standard three-movement concerto. In the end, Székely received his three movements, while Bartók received his variations (the second movement being possibly the most formal set of variations Bartók wrote in his career, and the third movement being a variation on material from the first).

Though not employing twelve-tone technique the piece contains twelve-tone themes, such as in the first and third movements.

The work was premiered at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam on March 23, 1939 with Zoltán Székely on violin and Willem Mengelberg conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra.

It had its United States premiere in Cleveland, Ohio in 1943, with Tossy Spivakovsky on the violin accompanied by The Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Artur Rodziński. Spivakovsky later gave the New York and San Francisco premieres of the work.

Allegro nnon troppo
Andante tranquilo
Allegro molto

Violín: Yehudi Menuhin

Philharmonia Orchestra

Director: Wilhelm Furtwängler

Recorded in 1953.

Brahms – Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 (1878)

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The Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77, was composed by Johannes Brahms in 1878 and dedicated to his friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim. It is Brahms’s only violin concerto, and, according to Joachim, one of the four great German violin concerti. The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven’s. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart’s jewel, is Mendelssohn’s.

I. Allegro non troppo 0:00
II. Adagio 22:36
III. Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace 32:26

David Oistrakh
Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française
Otto Klemperer
Studio recording, Paris, June 17-19, 1960

[Dedicated to Ida Holst]

György Ligeti – Lontano (1967)

Componist Gyorgy Ligeti  *1 februari 1984

Componist Gyorgy Ligeti
*1 februari 1984

A few weeks after arriving in Vienna Ligeti left for Cologne. There he met several key avant-garde figures and learned more contemporary musical styles and methods. These included the composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and Gottfried Michael Koenig, both then working on groundbreaking electronic music. During the summer he attended the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt. Ligeti worked in the Cologne Electronic Music Studio with Stockhausen and Koenig and was inspired by the sounds he heard there. However, he produced little electronic music of his own, instead concentrating on instrumental works which often contain electronic-sounding textures.

After about three years’ working with them he finally fell out with the Cologne School, this being too dogmatic and involving much factional in-fighting: “there were a lot of political fighting because different people, like Stockhausen, like Kagel wanted to be first. And I, personally, have no ambition to be first or to be important.”

From about 1960 Ligeti’s work became better-known and respected. His best-known work include works in the period from Apparitions (1958–59) to Lontano (1967) and his opera Le Grand Macabre (1978).

Morton Feldman – For John Cage (1982)

For John Cage, for violin & piano (1982)

Stephen Clarke, piano
Marc Sabat, violin

Morton Feldman’s “For John Cage” scored for violin and piano, approximately 70 minutes long, was composed in 1982. This was during the last period of Feldman’s creative activity when made several works of extended listening durations, like the “Triadic Memories” (1981), “Patterns in a Chromatic Field” (also known as “Untitled Composition for Cello and Piano” (1981), “Crippled Symmetry” (1983), the 80-minute “String Quartet” (1979), the 43-minute ensemble piece “For Samuel Beckett” (1987), and the more than 4 and 1/2 hours of “For Philip Guston”. In his ensemble works, Feldman assigned certain identifiable gestures to certain individual instruments and instrumental groups, and these gestures would be repeated on long, asymmetrical time schedules. The rhythms would be gradually offset, the pitches would move through harmonic fields that would be outlined by changes in the single pitches, note duration and consequently coordination between parts would either be conventionally notated or be indeterminate and left to the choice of the performers. The resulting ensemble image would be like floating layers of sound passing each other and combining in various ways. In a work with only two instruments, such as this, the gradual modification of rhythm and other elements, is highlighted. In Feldman’s earlier works, notes would be relatively isolated, and every once in a while a motoric “loop” would be created from a sequence of notes, and would be repeated more or less without change for a brief period. In this work, these looping patterns pre-dominate. The violin and piano sometimes imitate each other, exchange parts, but most often share a pattern divided between themselves; . The patterns, although simple, are unpredictable both in their shape, their subtle modification in timbre, tempo, articulation (attack, non-attack) and their number of repetitions, or singular statement. There is no sense of traditional linear development, and there is, really, no exact repetition. Certain remarkable illusionary passages occur, for example, when the two instruments exchange parts: after a long time of single note repeats in the piano and two-note gestures in the violin, at approximately 20 minutes into the piece, the violin begins pulsing (at different tempi) and the piano plays two-note figure in the high and low registers. The effect on the listener is difficult to explain in previous musical terms, but the piano and violin start to be heard as distinct voices, even if the music looks the same on the page. As if your left and right brain functions (if those actually exist separately) have switched over to the other side. At approximately 26 minutes, extremely high notes, and a switch to triplet groups occur; small chromatic movements add to the eerieness. At approximately 48 minutes into the piece, clusters begin appearing in the piano part, and snaky microtonal inflections occur in the violin part; this is followed by chromatic scales in the piano part smeared with the sustaining pedal, and they are imitated almost in pitch unison by the violin playing in microtones, artificial harmonics and sul ponticello. This is truly a bizarre sound. All certainty assured by the traditional relation to pitch is gradually obscured. Gesture and shape become the prime vocabulary. The distorting mirror gradually becomes clear again. The piano provides an ascending ladder of tuning points adding up to more complex harmony than that of the beginning. There is a return to more energetic patterns. And then to the ascending chromatics (3 to 5 note patterns). The piece concludes with a slow 5-note ascending cluster. We are left with a great mystery simply expressed. “It’s a little piece for violin and piano, but it doesn’t quit” (Feldman in conversation with composer Peter Gena). [allmusic.com]

Art by John Cage

Bernd Alois Zimmermann – Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu (1968)

While the “Monologe” are representative of the period in which Zimmermann’s “pluralism” was at its most intensive – the almost unbounded multi-layered structure of an entire world of ideas, Zimmermann pushes his idea of quotation and collage ad absurdum and this culminates in the “ballet noir” “Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu”, a piece that consists solely in quotations from others, witty, humorous and full of bitter cynicism, almost misanthropically set to music; it is a most opulent music with hair-raising impact and reality which radiates with some coarseness a desperately macabre merriment and yet which turns into bitter earnestness at the end. Without doubt one of the few pieces of music combining inspired imagination and perfect mastery of his craft. In 1966 Zimmermann became a member of the Berlin Akademie der Künste. The music for “Ubu” was written for this occasion and first performed in 1968. Zimmermann: “The piece is a ‘ballet noir’ which is performed at a banquet at the Court of Ubu. The Academy of the country in which the piece set is commanded to attend the banquet – and at the end in the ‘Marche du decervellage’ is dispatched through the trap door: symbolic of the fate of a liberal academy under the reign of a usurper. In order to show up our absolutely disproportionate intellectual and cultural situation, musical collages of the most amusing and hardest tone are used; the piece is pure collage, based on dances of the 16th and 17th centuries, interspersed with quotations from earlier and contemporary composers. A farce which is seemingly merry, fat and greedy like Ubu himself: apparently an enormous prank, but for those who are able to hear beyond this it is a warning allegory, macabre and amusing at the same time.” In the 20-minute work the basic features and actions of the main character are adapted from the surrealist novel by the French author Alfred Jarry. Ubu is the incarnation of a depraved bourgeois, a tyrant and mass murderer, boorish and coarse, who has made his way by murder from being a captain of a regiment of dragoons to become the Head of State. Zimmermann’s work is divided into seven parts with an Entree in which all the colleagues of the music academy are “quoted”. A work that surpasses by far Zimmermann’s musical pluralism and without doubt is intended to have a political function. The climax is the “Marche du decervellage”: a collage of quotations from Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyrie”, Stockhausen’s “Klavierstuck IX” (from which a chord on the piano is repeated, not as in the original 280 times but 631 times) and Berlioz’s “March to Scaffold” from the “Symphonic fantastique”. Hardly ever can descriptive music have been crueller, more destructive, more implacable; biting attacks against his contemporaries, musical marking time taken to absurdity, giving rise to brutality. The orchestra consists of large wood-wind, brass and percussion groups and only 4 double basses.

The use of musical quotation and the resulting quotation collage in imitation of literary and artistic collage reached its peak in the sixties in Zimmermann’s “Ubu”. The practice of quotation is thus overcome. The sorting and ordering of existing musical material as composition – and in this connection the composer’s self-orientation in face of tradition and history, achieves a point of culmination in the works of the last five years of Zimmermann’s life which is to remain unequalled. Quotation and quotation collages are extended in his works to higher and extra-musical significance within his peculiar philosophic “pluralistic method of composition”. [Bestellnummer DMR 1013-15]

Art by Max Ernst

Claude Ballif – Phrases sur le souffle (1958/1968)

Phrases sur le souffle, for ensemble, Op. 25 (1958/1968)

Amélia Salvetti, mezzo-soprano

Ensemble Polyphonique et Ensemble Instrumental de I’O.R.T.F.
Charles Ravier

Phrases sur le souffle, originally written for voice and piano, was composed in 1958 at the request of Clara Henius, who was also the first to sing the work. The score was reconstructed in 1968 under the influence of Charles Ravier for its performance at the Festival of Avignon. Here we encounter a complete transformation of this strange work that is more than a simple orchestration. The human voice, a “fragile, triumphant sound in which the force and intelligence of humanity are concentrated,” as Joseph Conrad has written, is presented as a field of investigations, each vowel being successively the object and the point of departure for studies in vocalization. This breath, carried by a simple yet carefully prepared voice, is as if caught at the birth of its human character, in order to be extended and multiplied in shattering reliefs and tones by the instrumental ensemble. This voice is finally magnified in the finale thanks to the choral support and by the superimposition of 5 vowels turning in a labyrinth of rhythms and timbres. –Bernard Bonaldi

Art by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Johannes Brahms – Piano Trio No. 1 Op. 8 (1854)

Beaux_Arts_Trio_1980

After spending Christmas with his parents in Hamburg, Brahms settled down to write the Trio in February of 1854. His progress was soon interrupted however, by news of Robert Schumann’s suicide attempt.

The exact nature of the relationship between Brahms and Schumanns has been open to much debate and wild speculation in musical circles and while the precise truth is still unknown, the fact remains that, at the very least, they were close friends. Upon hearing the news, Brahms immediately decamped to Düsseldorf in order to help the Schumann family. It was during this time that the Trio was completed.

Often described as ‘autumnal’ by critics and musicologists, the Trio is melancholy and introspective, its expansive melodies rendered even more beautiful by an underlying sense of emotional agitation. Given the circumstances under which this piece was composed, the sense of unrest is even more poignant.

The juxtaposition of unbridled emotion and strict observation musical form creates an extraordinary tension that would later become Brahms’ compositional calling card.

In addition to being his first major work, the Trio also turned out to be the first of Brahms’ pieces to be heard in the America. The young American pianist William Mason had been studying in Germany and brought the newly published score back to America with him. The premiere was given in New York on 17th November 1855 however the journey was beyond the financial reach of the young Brahms, so it was Mason that played the composer’s part.

Read the full blog article here.

Piano: Menahem Pressler
Violin: Daniel Guilet
Cello: Bernard Greenhouse