Augustin Hadelich on His Latest Recording & the Art of Cadenza Composition

By Cristina Schreil

For violinist Augustin Hadelich, the time was right.

Despite performing the Brahms violin concerto often over the years in concert, he “actually avoided recording” it. “My interpretation of the piece was still evolving,” he explains.

However, a conversation with Maestro Miguel Harth-Bedoya, chief conductor of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, led him to feel the time was right. They recorded the Brahms concerto in June 2017 over several days of rehearsals and sessions in NRK Concert Hall in Oslo.

They met again more than a year later, in September 2018, to record the second concerto appearing on Hadelich’s latest album: the Ligeti violin concerto. The recording of the Ligeti Concerto includes new cadenzas written by Thomas Ades for Hadelich.

Hadelich took the time to detail his careful probing of each work, their similarities, his philosophies behind his approach, and how he composed the cadenza to the Brahms concerto.  

Tell me about the initial inspiration for this project—why the decision to pair the Brahms and Ligeti concertos now? 

While I’ve known the Brahms concerto my whole life, I first heard the Ligeti concerto when I was 20 years old and started learning it a few years later. The idea of recording both of them on one CD came to me a few years after that. I love making programs with strongly contrasting pieces, because the listener will inevitably make unexpected connections and similarities. For example, a few years ago, I paired the violin concertos of Sibelius and Thomas Adès.

What do you particularly love about the Brahms concerto? 

It is fortunate that Brahms was extremely meticulous when publishing his music, so there aren’t any misprints or major controversies—the first edition of his works are generally perfect.

My general philosophy is that musicians should not add their “stamp” to the work, but should rather, through careful study and living with the music for a long time, slowly get to the composer’s intentions to reveal the work’s message. I think that if it sounds more like Augustin Hadelich than Johannes Brahms, then I did not do a good job!

This is truer than ever with the Brahms concerto, which is not a flashy, virtuosic piece—the technical challenges are almost “hidden”—not meant to impress but only in service to the music. 

The work is very passionate, lyrical, energetic, dramatic—one of the most expressive and beautiful pieces that Brahms wrote. It is incredibly hard (perhaps even impossible) to put into words however what exactly the music communicates or why it feels the way it does. In fact, when trying to do so, everything you want to say immediately sounds like a cliché—but when listening, somehow they all apply. It is an example of what had been called “absolute music,” music that doesn’t have a program or story, but communicates things that words can’t express.

There is a reason why Brahms wisely did not write metronome numbers when publishing his works—he knew that in some ways this music is always changing.

Brahms looked primarily to Beethoven’s quasi-symphonic concerto for inspiration. The solo violin is not a diva accompanied by a docile and subservient orchestra, but rather a protagonist defining its role through dialogue, struggle and dance with other voices. This is the concerto’s greatest strength, but also a significant challenge: the violinist, conductor and orchestra must achieve the chemistry of great chamber musicians in order to create a convincing performance.

Very often the solo violin is accompanying themes in the orchestra, which means that one must listen to the orchestral lines and follow them (or follow them as they follow me as I follow them), with all the nuances of playing with other people in a small chamber music setting. As a result, the piece will feel very different to me depending on which conductor and orchestra I play it with!

Not everybody liked this about the Brahms concerto at first. Many violinists initially dismissed the work as written “against the violin!” The Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate was angered by the beautiful oboe solo of the second movement, offended at having to “stand on the rostrum, violin in hand, and listen to the oboe in the Adagio playing the only tune in the whole work.”


It is fascinating to read the correspondence between Brahms and Joseph Joachim, the violinist for whom the concerto was written. When I saw the manuscript that they sent back and forth, each revision in a different color of ink, I felt like I was eavesdropping on their discussions and arguments! Joachim contributed many valuable suggestions to make the work more “violinistic”, while Brahms held steadfastly to his own compositional vision, adapting some but not all of Joachim’s ideas. 

What do you do differently with the Brahms concerto on this recording than you’ve done in performances? Anything our listeners should listen for or note before delving in?

I think it’s best to delve right in. While this recording is how I conceived of the piece in June 2017, I’ve already changed my mind about many things! For one thing, the flow of the piece is very different with each conductor and orchestra. Some performances that I’ve played are much more driven (and perhaps as a result more dramatic), while this one was more expansive. I think in some ways this will always be in flux.

There is a reason why Brahms wisely did not write metronome numbers when publishing his works—he knew that in some ways this music is always changing.

Why the decision to play your own cadenza for the Brahms concerto? 

Brahms did not write a cadenza, leaving space for violinists to compose their own. Joachim’s excellent cadenza is of course the most often played, but it’s not the final word: when Brahms heard Marie Soldat (a pupil of Joachim) play the concerto with Joachim’s cadenza, Brahms suggested extensive cuts, and does not seem to have been too enthusiastic about the cadenza. 

While the Brahms concerto is a work I’ll never get tired of, I found myself growing bored with the Joachim cadenza over the years. I don’t think the writing is at the same compositional level as the concerto. In 2008 I began performing the cadenza by Fritz Kreisler. While it is definitely written in Kreisler’s style, not in the style of Brahms, it is absolutely wonderful! It is interesting and dramatic and contains unexpected surprises. When I first started to play the Kreisler cadenza, it felt like a breath of fresh air.

For the first half-century after the premiere of the Brahms concerto in 1879 many great violinists from Ysaÿe to Kreisler to Heifetz composed their own cadenza. I have no doubt that Brahms fully expected this tradition to continue, and for dozens of cadenzas to be written by different violinists over the years. He would have been surprised that the Joachim cadenza has become so “standard!”

Writing a cadenza is a chance for a more personal reflection, and after many years of performing both the Joachim and Kreisler cadenzas, I finally decided to write my own in early 2017! 

How did you approach writing your own cadenza? What was that process like?

I had already composed cadenzas to concertos by Mozart, Haydn and Paganini, but of course Brahms is a more difficult challenge. Some of the hallmarks of his music are that the lines are simple (usually most of the parts in the score are singable), there is a lot of interesting contrast and variation, the proportions and forms are carefully planned out, and the counterpoint and voice-leading is always perfect.

It was an immensely interesting and humbling experience for me to compose this cadenza while attempting to stay within the parameters of Brahms’ style. Interestingly, I found that it is easy to write music that sounds like “bad Brahms”—there are certain compositional habits (hemiola bar groupings, triplets against duplets) that are immediately recognizable. Writing “good Brahms” is where it gets tricky. I spent a lot of time editing, making small changes and cuts and rearranging sections, trying to arrive at a structure that felt right. 

In order for a cadenza to fit naturally inside the Brahms concerto, it can’t be a showy virtuoso display. It must continue the general approach of the concerto: to write the music first regardless of how comfortably it lies on the instrument, then figure out if it’s playable on the violin later.

Let’s talk about the Ligeti concerto: What do you admire or find exciting about the work?

The Ligeti violin concerto never ceases to fascinate and excite me. It is one of his most consonant, lyrical works, drawing inspiration from the overtone series, medieval music, Hungarian folk music, and expressionism, while combining all of these elements with compositional techniques from his earlier avant-garde period. 


When I first heard it over 15 years ago, I was immediately drawn in by the beautiful and haunting second movement. It sounds like a medieval chant that is interrupted by a chorus of ocarinas—folk instruments used for thousands of years in Asian and Mesoamerican cultures—in a moment that sounds like folk music from a different world and time.

The first movement is in perpetual motion with several layers of complex rhythms and tuning systems going on in parallel. What seems at first to sound like mayhem turns out to be following a mathematical order, like a clockwork where bigger and smaller gears eventually align.

In the later movements, Ligeti is determined to express not only beautiful emotions, but also the ugly, angry, desperate ones. 

Why did you feel the Ligeti paired well here with the Brahms?

Although Brahms and Ligeti are so different in terms of temperament and style, the romantic Brahms and the recovering avantgardist Ligeti also have a lot in common. Both composers were fascinated by Hungarian folklore, and the “Hungarian dance” of the finale of the Brahms creates a bridge to the Hungarian rhythms, scales and themes throughout the Ligeti. Both were inspired by renaissance counterpoint as well, shared similar ideas about the role of the soloist in a concerto, and wrote music of great depth that is emotional but also rigorously constructed. I think the similarities and contrasts make each work shine in a way that it wouldn’t without the other.

The Ligeti concerto is quite daunting to learn—can you speak about some of the more challenging elements and tell us how you approached them? 

When performed live, this concerto is a spectacle! The demands Ligeti makes of the orchestral players are both brilliant and ludicrously impractical: during parts of the concerto, oboe, clarinet and bassoon players exchange their instruments for ocarinas, while percussionists play on lotos flutes.

Meanwhile, the concertmaster and principle violist play in scordatura, tuning their open strings to harmonics (overtones) of the bass, which sound flat. This microtonality results in intervals that are “out of tune” in the conventional sense, but are also consonant, pleasant-sounding and familiar due to their presence in the overtone series. The effect is often mirrored in the horns and trombones, who play “natural” intervals also based on the tuning of the overtone series.

The whole thing is almost impossible to work out for a performance, but recording the work in a studio is a chance to work on these details and get closer to the score and the composer’s intentions.

Ligeti uses every possible extended violin technique in his five-movement concerto, from pizzicato to harmonic glissandos, from difficult double-stops to artificial harmonics, utilizing the full palette of colors that the instrument can produce.


What do the Ligeti and Brahms have in common?

Ligeti shares Brahms’ approach of creating an intense conversation between soloist and orchestra. Whereas in Brahms one hears a friendly dialogue, in Ligeti one may hear an argument, with groups of instruments forming factions that argue viciously and talk past each other.

How did you approach the Ligeti’s difficulties?

Violinistically, I approached the Ligeti like any other difficult piece: lots of slow practice and problem solving. When I first learned the work, the biggest musical challenge for me was the rhythm, which is extraordinarily complex. Practicing the rhythm and studying the score away from the instrument was key.

The Ligeti includes a new cadenza written for you by Thomas Ades, which have never before been recorded. Can you speak a bit about it? 

Like Brahms, Ligeti did not provide his own cadenza—the printed score contains a cadenza written (with Ligeti’s help) by Saschko Gawriloff, the violinist who premiered the concerto, along with an invitation to any violinist or composer to write their own. Ligeti instructs that the cadenza should be several minutes long, hectic throughout, and contain melodic material from all five movements. 

The British composer Thomas Adès recently composed a cadenza, and when I saw it, I couldn’t wait to play it. I ended up playing the US premiere of the work in Boston in January of 2018, with Adès conducting the piece. His cadenza is crazed, unrelenting, and even more difficult than the Ligeti concerto itself! But it is also a role model of cadenza writing: stylistically, it may sound even more like Ligeti than Ligeti’s own music, and fits into the piece perfectly, heightening the tension and excitement.

After the cadenza, the orchestra plays for only another four bars until we reach the end of the concerto. This ending often felt puzzling and somewhat unsatisfying to me before I performed the concerto with Thomas Adès’ cadenza. Structure and form are among Adès’ greatest strengths as a composer, and the way he ends his cadenza is brilliant, moving toward those last four orchestral bars in such a way that they feel like the logical conclusion of the piece—as though it is the only way the piece could possibly end! 

Anything else to add?

Henle Verlag, the German urtext publisher, is actually publishing my fingerings and bowings for the Brahms concerto, in their app. When looking at the Brahms concerto in the Henle app, one can toggle between markings of different violinists and teachers, and I’m very happy that my (sometimes eccentric but hopefully helpful) fingerings and bowings are now available in the Henle app!