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Ligeti’s Violin Concerto with Renaud Capuçon and David Robertson

08 May 2010

Berliner Philharmoniker
David Robertson

Renaud Capuçon

  • Franz Liszt
    Orpheus, Symphonic Poem No. 4 (13 min.)

  • György Ligeti
    Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (31 min.)

    Renaud Capuçon Violin

  • Béla Bartók
    The Wooden Prince, ballet music, Sz 60 (58 min.)

  • free

    Interview
    Renaud Capuçon in conversation with Matthew Hunter (20 min.)

In this concert we hear Hungarian music in all its wide variety when the Berliner Philharmoniker present key composers from the country ranging from Liszt to Bartók. Our guests this evening are David Robertson and Renaud Capuçon.

Even if Franz Liszt never really mastered the Hungarian language, he was proud throughout his life to be a real Magyar, at least by birth. For this evening, he represents the 19th century with his tone poem Orpheus. With Béla Bartók and György Ligeti, we are joined by two composers who, before and after the Second World War respectively, shaped Hungarian music more so than any others. In the pieces to be performed at this concert – Bartók’s ballet music The Wooden Prince and Ligeti’s Violin Concerto – a central source of inspiration for Hungarian culture also manifests itself: folk music.

Our soloist this evening is Renaud Capuçon, one of today’s most promising young violinists and a former student of Isaac Stern, whose instrument he now plays – a 1721 Guarneri. David Robertson is the conductor, music director of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra since 2005, and principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony.

Harmony and Hullabaloo

New musical territory: from Orpheus to peasant music

Liszt and the “gentle power of art”

In September 1847, Franz Liszt resolved to break off his career as a virtuoso. “Am I to be condemned to the occupation of a clown?” he asked himself and lamented: “What a repugnant necessity it is in a virtuoso’s career, this constant regurgitation of the same things!” The remark was conveniently timed. Shortly before, his private life had also experienced a surprising turn: at a concert in Kiev, Liszt met Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein – a fateful encounter that led Carolyne promptly to leave her husband and in April 1848 to settle in Weimar, where Liszt was under contract as court Kapellmeister.

In Weimar, the focus of his artistic endeavours was no longer the piano, but the orchestra. As conductor of the court musical establishment, Liszt performed a widely varied opera and concert repertoire that emphasised recent and brand-new works. This preoccupation had direct consequences on his own creativity: now for the first time he was giving serious attention to orchestral composition. His aim was nothing less than to lay a new foundation for the future of symphonic music and to achieve a multi-disciplinary association between music, poetry, painting and philosophy. The magic word for this music-historical revolution was “symphonic poem”.

Liszt produced twelve symphonic poems between 1848 and 1861; Orpheus was the fourth in the series. In the preface to the score, Liszt refers to his source of inspiration. While composing the work, he had in mind the image of an Etruscan vase in the Louvre depicting Orpheus, “his open lips uttering divine melodies and words, his long, delicate fingers plucking the strings of his lyre ... Singing birds and murmuring waterfalls suspend their songs while laughter and pleasure defer to his sweet sounds, which reveal to humanity the benevolent power of art, its radiant glory, its civilising harmony.”

Two harps, descendants of the lyre, set the ethereal, dreamlike tone of Liszt’s symphonic poem, which depicts not so much a concrete story as a philosophy or artistic doctrine: a musical parable on the power of music, something with which the gifted virtuoso was well acquainted.

Ligeti and the Dream Landscapes of New Music

“Do something new, good people, new! And then something else new!” wrote Richard Wagner to Liszt in 1852. Later generations would come to regard the use of this word as a curse. Always creating something new: was that realistic in the long term? After all the experimentation of the post-war musical avant-garde, weren’t all the possibilities already probed and all the taboos broken? Even repeating a successful experiment was an artistic cul-de-sac. No one understood that better than György Ligeti, born in 1923, and so he sought in each new work to create something different. And, nurtured by his enormous thirst for knowledge, ranging from natural sciences and philosophy to ethnology, Ligeti’s materials were inexhaustible.

When he was asked by the violinist Saschko Gawriloff to write him a Violin Concerto at the end of the 1980s, Ligeti managed to integrate the most diverse elements into a single organic entity: “African music with fractal geometry, M.C. Escher’s ‘impossible reality’ pictures with untempered tuning systems, Conlon Nancarrow’s polyrhythmic music, and the music of the ars subtilior” were the sources he cited. A version in three movements was premiered in 1990, but Ligeti was dissatisfied with it and rewrote the opening movement and added two new ones. In this form the work had its world premiere in Cologne on 8 November 1992.

Thus was created, in Gawriloff’s judgment, “a masterpiece whose five movements are hardly equalled by any other composition in contemporary music in the diversity of their construction and content”. The hinge that connects them is the idea of developing a new concept of tonality and pitches not based on the tempered system of Western music. In the Violin Concerto Ligeti employs instruments with variable intonation: four ocarinas, two slide whistles, recorder, natural horn and natural trombone. He also has one violin in the orchestra tune higher and one viola tune lower than the other instruments. The result is a somewhat diffuse, impure sound which, at the same time, has something inherently exotic about it – Ligeti’s exploration of non-European music has left its traces. By contrast, “Aria, Hoquetus, Choral” points back to the world of the Baroque and the Middle Ages. Ligeti called this enthralling second movement – a theme varied in seven strophes – his contribution to Post-Modernism.

The brief intermezzo gives the solo instrument a broad melody to sing above non-stop chromatically rising scales on the strings, which are to be played louder and louder until they virtually eclipse the violin. Fragile, ethereal and pianissimo, the Passacaglia steals in: Ligeti compared this beginning to a “dream landscape of glass”, but in the course of the movement he contrives to destroy it. The finale displays a rhapsodic character as it juxtaposes the most varied passages and sonorities – in the sketches, Ligeti writes “hullabaloo” and “gibberish”.

Béla Bartók and the Art of Authenticity

In 1904, the 23-year-old Béla Bartók wrote to his sister of a new plan to collect authentic Hungarian folk music, not least because “our own good Hungarians ... are more satisfied with the usual gypsy slop”. He believed that his song-gathering expeditions, which eventually took him beyond the borders of his native country to explore authentic music throughout the entire Balkan region, could lead to the “generation of a new spirit in music”. Thus pristine, archaic “peasant music” became the pivotal point in Bartók’s creative work, and henceforth his motto would be reconciling nature with art.

In 1913, the Budapest Opera House commissioned him to compose a pantomime. He chose a subject that orbited round both of these poles, basing the work on a fairytale by Béla Balázs, published in 1912, about a Prince who seeks the favour of a beautiful but haughty Princess. As she stubbornly ignores him, he decides to make a wooden doll, his artistic alter ego. The Princess is enraptured by the puppet and falls in love with it, though not with its flesh-and-blood model. Nature consoles the Prince by adorning his head with flowers and flowing tresses. Now not even the Princess can overlook his charms, and she quickly tires of his wooden companion.

Bartók’s music for the pantomime The Wooden Prince also represents the confrontation of opposing worlds: melodic motifs from southeast European folk music with expressionistic effects; moments of Romantic ardour with strident passages; peaceful nature images with garish instrumental colours and graphically pointed rhythms. Bartók had long been afraid that the Budapest public would “no longer be naïve enough and not yet cultivated enough” (as his comrade and colleague Zoltán Kodály put it) to grasp the appeal of his folk-musical discoveries. Nevertheless, the premiere of The Wooden Prince on 12 May 1917 was a success. The audience, as reported in the Budapest Hírlap, “listened to the music with rapt attention, was not put off by its modernity, and even enjoyed its interesting novelties.”

Susanne Stähr
Translation: Richard Evidon


Renaud Capuçon was fourteen when he began studying the violin at the Paris Conservatoire. His later teachers were Thomas Brandis and Isaac Stern. Within a short period he had received numerous prizes and awards and in 1997 was appointed leader of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra by Claudio Abbado. He made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in November 2002 performing Korngold’s Violin Concerto under the direction of Bernard Haitink. Since then he has appeared with leading orchestras all over the world, including the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Symphony Orchestra. Among the conductors with whom he has worked are Semyon Bychkov, Myung-Whun Chung, Vladimir Fedoseyev, Iván Fischer, Daniel Harding, Marc Minkowski and Wolfgang Sawallisch. He is particularly fond of chamber music and has worked with the pianists Daniel Barenboim, Martha Argerich and Hélène Grimaud, the clarinettist Paul Meyer, the violist Yuri Bashmet and the cellist Truls Mørk. He also appears on a regular basis with his brother, the cellist Gautier Capuçon. He is a frequent and welcome visitor to major international festivals and has also founded his own festival in his home town of Chambéry in France. Renaud Capuçon plays the “Panette” Guarneri del Gesù of 1737 that formerly belonged to Isaac Stern.


David Robertson was born in Santa Monica, California, and studied the French horn and composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London before turning to conducting. From 1985 to 1987 he was resident conductor of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. He is particularly interested in new music, a fondness that he was able to indulge between 1992 and 2000, when he was conductor of the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris. From 2000 to 2004 he was music director of the Orchestre National de Lyon and of the city’s concert hall, and since 2004 he has held a similar position with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. Since 2005 he has also been principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In addition to these various commitments he also appears regularly with leading international orchestras all over the world, including the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Dresden Staatskapelle, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. He made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in late November 2002, conducting works by Ruders, Berio and Sibelius. His most recent appearance was in mid-January 2005, when he gave three concerts of works by Messiaen, Benjamin and Beethoven. Among the leading opera houses where he has worked are La Scala, Milan, the Metropolitan Opera, New York, the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris and the Munich and Hamburg State Operas. In 2000 he was named Conductor of the Year by Musical America, and in both 2006 and 2009 he was acclaimed by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for his innovative and modern programming with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.

EMI Renaud Capuçon appears by kind permission of EMI Classics.

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