A new release on the naïve label, currently available for download from ClassicsOnline, explores three generations of violin concertos, all of which are products of Transylvanian influence. The conductor is Peter Eötvös, and he is also one of the three composers. He was born in Transylvania, as was his predecessor, György Ligeti, whose concerto is also included. (In addition, the revised version of his concerto, which is the version on this recording, was first conducted by Eötvös.) The “grand old man” on the recording is Béla Bartók, who performed much of his ethnomusicological field work (evidence of which appears in many of his compositions) in Transylvania. To get beyond this “Transylvanian connection,” one must turn to violin soloist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who was born in Moldavia, and her accompanying ensembles, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and Ensemble Modern, also based in Frankfurt.
As might be guessed, the folk elements are most evident in the Bartók selection, his second violin concerto. This follows the familiar Bartók structural logic of a hushed but intense middle movement, flanked on either side by vigorous Allegro movements. As also might be expected, the entire concerto offers a rich spectrum of sonorities, whether on the grand scale of the entire ensemble playing full out or through an intimate dialog between solo violin and timpani. Kopatchinskaja traverses the breadth of expressiveness in her solos with cleanly articulated lines declared through a confident rhetoric, while Eötvös maintains the necessary balance with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra.
This ensemble also accompanies Kopatchinskaja for Eötvös’ own concerto, entitled “Seven.” The subtitle is “Memorial for the Columbia Astronauts,” all seven of whom perished on the ill-fated Columbia mission of 2003. The concerto is in two parts, the first of which consists of four cadenzas alternating with three orchestral sections. The score assigns the name of each of the astronauts to these seven units. However, the music itself is less a denotation of the act of grieving and more a meditation on the relatively minor position of human existence within the vast scope of the entire universe. Here again we encounter music with a keen sense of sonority, with more emphasis on the different sonorous qualities of the violin itself than was encountered in the Bartók concerto. Eötvös the composer is definitely well served by Eötvös the conductor; and, under his direction, Kopatchinskaja brings the same clarity to his score that she brought to Bartók’s.
The domain of the Ligeti concerto, on the other hand, is that of the chamber orchestra; and this is where Eötvös shifts his attention to Ensemble Modern. However, for a reduced ensemble, the instrumentation is decidedly extensive, meaning that many of the performers play multiple instruments. What emerges is an instrumental context whose sonorities are far more transparent than those of the accompaniments for the Bartók and Eötvös concertos.
What is particularly interesting about Ligeti is the extent of attention he devotes to traditional forms. He then takes his selected array of highly conventional frameworks and fills them in with grammatical conventions based more on the progression of sonorities than on either harmony or counterpoint. The effect in this particular concerto turns out to be quite stunning, making it a rather more accessible composition than his earlier works that involved thick textures of microintervals.
This is also a concerto in which there is more of a sense of the soloist conversing with the individual voices of the ensemble. This requires a different relationship between Kopatchinskaja and Eötvös than emerged in the performances of the Bartók and Eötvös concertos. Nevertheless, the chemistry they achieve in this chamber setting is as effective as that of the more conventional soloist-orchestra relationship.
Taken as a whole, this journey through three violin concertos, all composed within the last hundred years, is an engaging one, thanks to the rigorous attention provided by both soloist and conductor.