The Alpha recording label is launching a collaboration with Ensemble InterContemporain and its new Artistic Director and conductor, the composer Matthias Pintscher. The group was founded in 1972 by another composer, Pierre Boulez, who used it as a platform for not only his own compositions but also a broad scope of modernist approaches, with the neoclassicism of Igor Stravinsky at one extreme and the outrageousness of Frank Zappa at the other. Pintscher became Artistic Director in 2013, succeeding the Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki.
Alpha will release its first album on Friday (October 30); and, as is usually the case, Amazon.com is currently taking pre-orders. It features the work to two major Hungarian modernists, Béla Bartók and György Ligeti. Each is allotted a single CD. The Bartók disc offers two chamber music selections, his “Contrasts” trio for clarinet (Jérôme Comte), violin (Diego Tosi), and piano (Sébastien Vichard) and his sonata for two pianos (Vichard and Dimitri Vassilakis) and percussion (Gilles Durot and Samuel Favre). The full ensemble performs with Pintscher only on the Ligeti disc, which consists of his three concertos for piano (Hidéki Nagano), cello (Pierre Strauch), and violin (Jeanne-Marie Conquer).
It would be fair to say that all of these selections have already been firmly established in the legacy that Boulez created in his work with Ensemble InterContemporain. Indeed, his performances of the three Ligeti concertos are included in the Deutsche Grammophon (DG) 44-CD box Pierre Boulez • 20th Century. As a result, this new recording may give the impression that Pintscher is carrying on a particular torch passed to him by Boulez, even if he was not Boulez’ immediate successor. Far more interesting is the fact that Pintscher is, himself, a composer, leading one to wonder when he will get around to bringing his own music to the recorded repertoire.
On the other hand, regardless of how many recordings already exist of the Ligeti concertos, there is a certain comfort in knowing that new generations of soloists, conductors, and ensembles are committed to keeping this music in the “active repertoire.” It is worth noting that, on this recording, the concertos are not presented in chronological order. The earliest is the second selection, the cello concerto composed for Siegfried Palm in 1966. This was a time when Ligeti was particularly interested in new sonorities. Many of his colleagues were working with electronics, and their efforts probably inspired him to seek out new approaches to performing on conventional instruments. The result is a fascinating exercise in abstraction, although there is also a bit of Ligeti’s wit in his decision to identify the two movements only by a metronome marking, which happens to be the same for both of them!
The other two concertos were composed much later in Ligeti’s career, the piano concerto in 1988 and the violin concerto in 1993. The piano concerto was composed shortly after Ligeti had completed his first book of solo piano études, and it would probably be fair to say that the music offers a transition from the practice studio to the concert hall. There is certainly no shortage of the sorts of technical demands that the études were intended to establish.
The violin concerto, on the other hand, is more eclectic. It is the only one of the concertos whose movements have titles, and those titles are evocative of structural forms associated with many different preceding centuries. Indeed, the two flute players are required to exchange their instruments for four different sizes of recorder, while the rest of the wind section blends into the resulting sonorities by playing on two sizes of ocarina. Thus, the adjective “eclectic” probably understates just how much diversity there is in building blocks for logic, grammar, and rhetoric in this concerto; and, were it not for the cadenza work, one might even call it a concerto for orchestra with obbligato violin.
Pintscher has definitely been highly effective in seeking out and realizing valid approaches to providing each of these concertos with an expressive interpretation. Indeed, his insights are so promising that it is a bit disappointing that he did not participate in the Bartók CD. However, to be fair, Bartók did not write very much for the chamber resources of a group like Ensemble InterContemporain. So, to the extent that, on this new album, he serves as an “earlier Hungarian voice;” the two selections on his CD are entirely appropriate. Each was definitely given a compelling reading, but it is still necessary to note that the dynamic range of the sonata is so wide that it really needs to be experienced in concert. Audio technology simply cannot do justice to Bartók’s skill at covering the entire gamut from barely audible to mind-shattering fortissimo.