In the canon of great composer-portraits (Opmeer's Josquin, Delacroix's Chopin, Picasso's Stravinsky), there's a lesser-known but absolutely brilliant painting of György Ligeti by Aliute Meèys. In it Ligeti is falling apart, many times in many ways: there's actually about five impeccably illustrated Ligetis, all cardboard placard-peers clad in ruffled green suits, with gray hair and worried looks, each about to topple over or crack in half -- and each barely being held in place by one another amidst rocky ruins. Meèys' portrait would just be a joke -- "Ligeti split" -- if it didn't look so much like Ligeti's music sounds: both have that same polyrhythmic track of hysteria and precision, humor and disaster, webbed into a kind of recognizable, exact chaos.
Ligeti's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra from 1992 is a relatively late work, but in many ways it's the brother of Meèys' portrait: its five movements have the same quality of falling apart into fantastic ruin, and each also gleams with the immaculate shimmer of carefully crafted illusions. Like the painting, this concerto is a desperate but tragic essay in keeping it together. At the compositional stage, Ligeti eventually conceived a walloping eight-movement scheme, but half in fragments. The final solution yielded a rhetorical stroke of genius: violinist Gawriloff collaged the scraps of the unwritten movements into a wild finale-cadenza; coming after waves of seriocomic catastrophes, it suggests a tramp scrambling from the mouth of banal death -- old-style Paganinian virtuosity wearing musical hand-me-downs.
But this schizoid flavor also constitutes the sound of the concerto as well, which radiates layered skins like a sonic onion. The polymeters so characteristic of Ligeti's music from the 1980s onwards are brazenly present, especially in the concerto's first and final movements. Here the soloist is often lost in an illuminated mirrored hall, surrounded by musical doppelgangers moving at different speeds. Ligeti adds to the rhythmic and timbral layeredness an extraordinary mis-tuning of the ensemble; among other examples, a violin and viola must de-tune their strings to the natural harmonics of the double bass. The effect, amidst a harmony calculated to sound neither tonal nor atonal, manifests Ligeti's wish for a "glassy shimmering character" emanating "fragility and danger."
The second movement is another of Ligeti's mock-folk pieces, thirsting after the anonymous sincerity of Eastern European peasant song, but continually splintering into weird ironic homelessness; interspersed with botched variations of a modal melody Ligeti inserts delusional passages for ocarinas. The fourth movement's passacaglia is a terrifying tightening of the screw, its "Lento intenso" witnessing the slow rise of a chromatic scale through the entire ensemble; a procession of fearful quiet and violent outburst force a gravity on the whole work, turning surreal play into a sincere anxiety. The final movement's caustic, ruinous humor barely alleviates this new darkness, and by the time of the violinist's histrionic soliloquy, one gets the pervasive sensation that all is lost. But the effect is far more provocative than depressing, basking in paradox: how can something so radiant also be so black?