Now listening to the four works in a new anthology by Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, with Benjamin Schmid as violin soloist as called for (Ondine 1213-2), I am pleased yet startled. Startled because the music is so excellent and the performances riveting. And pleased for the same reason.
There are four symphonic works represented here, covering a long time span between 1961 and 1993. The Violin Concerto (1989-1993) is in many ways the centerpiece, a masterwork of sound color played with energy and grace by Schmid and the Danish congregation. Ligeti shows as elsewhere a thoroughgoing mastery of the forces available to him, creating a sustained landscape of sound color with an excellent sense of drama and impact. Ligeti makes the orchestra anew with a brilliant sense of how to create a sound-with-sound dialog between violin and large group. Schmid sounds perfect in the part.
And that's only the start, because equally enthralling and innovative are the other three works, "Lontano" (1967), "Atmospheres" (1961) and "San Francisco Polyphony" (1974). Like Xenakis and early Penderecki he seeks to create a music outside the tonal framework but also often outside the traditional line-building, note-specific ways we are taught to listen to orchestral or other classical music. This is about sound masses, soundscapes of contrasting colors and clusters, the effect of the whole as much as the impact of the parts. He was, now that we look back, one of the first soundscape artists and certainly one of the great ones.
This has the timbral contrasts of the electronic music of the era, yet it is all accomplished via acoustic real-time performance. The final effect contrasts with the electronic music of the times because these are acoustic instruments and so give out a different wave energy as Ligeti conceives it all. The flow from sound-station to sound-station is virtually breathtaking. It's not music that sounds (to me) jarring as much as it sounds otherworldly.
Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, with or without violinist Schmid, bring this music to life in the most sympathetic ways. Highly recommended.