Gyorgy Ligeti: Romanian Concerto

Gyorgy Ligeti (1923-2006)
Romanian Concerto (1952)
Allegro vivace
Adagio, ma non troppo
Molto vivace

When he wrote this piece, Ligeti was a harmony and counterpoint professor at the Budapest Conservatory, the school from which he graduated in 1949. It would still be four years before he and his wife would escape from Hungary by hiding under postbags on a train bound for Vienna. He later moved to Cologne and became, along with Stockhausen, a crucial member of the avant-garde movement.

Those familiar with Ligeti’s later work could certainly be forgiven for thinking Bartók wrote this piece. The Concerto does owe a debt to Bartók, it’s true, but a much larger one is owed to the communist Hungarian government. Much like Shostakovich, Ligeti was cut off completely from all things Western and under obligated to compose the tonal, folk-influenced pieces the government favoured. The Romanian Concerto is one of the few works from this period that Ligeti did not consign to juvenilia.

This piece very rarely programmed, likely because it is so different to Ligeti’s later works. It is a shame really, as the Concerto is an imaginative setting of Romanian folk music as well as a promise of the Ligeti to come. The first complete UK performance was in 2003, at the Barbican for the composer’s 80th birthday celebrations.

Ligeti’s skill at orchestrating for a precise colour is immediately evident in the first movement. The opening unison cello melody is shaded with a pair of clarinets and later on Ligeti scores a flute and bassoon duet.

An exuberant dance melody bursts in on the tranquil country scene established in the Andantino as it heralds the beginning of the second movement. It’s as if a rambler has stumbled upon a village fête with the fife and drums, gypsy fiddler and brass band out in full force. A final unison figure echoes the liveliness of the opening.

The opening clarinet dissonances and solo horn in the third movement are the first moments of this piece to really sound like Ligeti. He makes use of string techniques such as tremolo and sul ponticello, bowing at the bridge, in order to create an ethereal background for the solo cor anglais. These effects, along with many others, are used extensively in Ligeti’s later work.

Once again, serenity is shattered as a pair of trumpets announce a change of pace, recalling the final movement of Dvorak’s eighth symphony. A folk melody soon emerges from frenetic orchestral murmuring and it is taken in turns throughout the band. This frantic pace is maintained until finally solo instruments begin to play themes on top of each other halted only by a fortissimo trumpet outburst. 10 unison chords are not enough to extinguish the solo violin and it continues playing while the solo horn reprises its third movement melody. The orchestra gets the last word in however and one final, diatonic chord brings the piece to a close.

It is easy to attach meaning where there is none, however it does not seem too much of a stretch to think of the ending as an aural illustration depicting the suppression of the individual and creative ideas. Even though the soloists were assimilated in the end, the Hungarian government was not impressed and these final dissonances, which seem mild to modern ears, resulted in the Concerto being banned.

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