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György Ligeti: The Complete Piano Etudes: Christopher Taylor, Piano, Miller Theatre, Columbia University, New York City, 29.10.2005 (BH)



Book 3 (1995- )

Book 2 (1988-94)

Book 1 (1985)



“I’m surprised he didn’t bust a vein,” said a friend at intermission, after Christopher Taylor had just demolished No. 14, Coloana infinità, the gasp-inducing finale of the second book of piano etudes by György Ligeti.  But this towering cycle has more than its share of moments courting vascular stress, and to hear all eighteen etudes in one sitting is to find oneself in the presence of one of the world’s great bodies of literature for the instrument.  Although individually, many of these have found their way into encore status, the group as a whole is a veritable Everest, requiring superhuman technique and stamina.  Fortunately there are a few pianists around with the grappling hooks, ropes, pitons, down sleeping bag, tent and freeze-dried rations to do the job, and Mr. Taylor can now be considered an esteemed member of a cozy club of which Pierre Laurent-Aimard is the unofficial president. 


The additional challenge of these masterpieces is how to locate their peculiar expressivity, sometimes elusive in the midst of almost hilariously daunting challenges.  This is music for machines, not for human beings, or so it might seem watching a pianist dive into their relentless runs, obsessive trills, and sprawling tributaries of notes.  One of the distinctions of Mr. Taylor’s dazzling achievement is the amount of color, delicacy and emotion that he managed to wrest from music that some might find soulless.  Melding virtuosity with profundity, he found soul to spare.


Taylor began with the four newest that make Book III, followed by the eight in Book II, and then after the interval raced through the six from the diabolical Book I.  Etude No. 15, White on White, whose title comes from the focus on the white keyboard notes, begins as simply as a nursery rhyme, but soon begins displaying the fiendish thrills of its cousins.  Written three years later, A bout de souffle (Out of breath) is light and almost of a different world entirely, with the left hand following the right just an eighth-note apart, in a canon that Mr. Taylor accurately describes as “bewildering.”  The set ends with Canon (2001) in which the hands are now a quarter-note apart, racing with frighteningly relentless speed.  In between is Pour Irina (1997), pieced together with fragments of minor scales.  If the four from Book III seem more like each other than like those of their predecessors, it is probably because I’m a trifle dazed after my first encounter with this group.  (It’s two days later, and I’m still reeling.)  In any case, it is not misleading to mention Ligeti and Conlon Nancarrow in the same breath, since both inhabit the territory where human ability is pushed to its extreme.


The eight that form Book II begin with the Indonesian-spiced Galam borong, followed by Fém (Hungarian for “metal”), the aural equivalent of watching a blacksmith’s hammer striking an anvil, leaving showers of sparks falling to the floor, or in this case sweat, from this particular blacksmith’s stunning technique.  During the dizzy cascades of Vertige, which true to its title is devised from vertiginous groups of notes creating a flood of almost unbearable tension, some of the fun comes from watching the performer and waiting to see if he simply “makes it.”  Der Zauberlehrling (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) casts its spell through the obsessive repetition of a single note for a few seconds of each phrase, before veering off into other magical explorations.  En suspens evokes Scriabin more than any of the set with delicate chord progressions, unusual in that many of these etudes are not about “chords” as such, and Entrelacs has a shimmer that Debussy might have admired.  And then we arrive at L’escalier du diable (The Devil’s Staircase and surely not coincidentally, Etude No. 13), with its torrent of chromatic scales, capped by satanic church bells. 


After intermission, the tireless Mr. Taylor plunged into Désorde, one long mad prestissimo dispatched as if without a breath, followed by the languid Cordes à vide, a comparatively gentle study in fifths.  The energy returns in Touches bloquées (Blocked keys) with one of Ligeti’s signature effects: one hand silently depresses a group of notes, while the other hand plays over them, or perhaps more accurately, through them, so that some notes of a passage just drop out, creating an odd stuttering rhythm, in this case sounding very much like jazz.  After a scant break, Fanfares rockets the listener off into space in a relentless rush of upward motion, before Arc-en-ciel offers a bit of graceful nostalgia and a relatively quiet ending, as it tiptoes off the far right end of the keyboard.  And finally the extraordinary Automne à Varsovie (Autumn in Warsaw) with its tortured, angst-ridden flame – perhaps it was the title that made me think of Chopin, but Ligeti’s intensity takes Chopin and nails him to the wall.  As soon as Taylor’s hands left the keyboard, the audience could hardly hold back its reserves of “bravo,” as if a dam had burst.


If there are any similarities in the group, it might be in their obsession with the far extremes of the keyboard; often an exploration of the lower end will suddenly shift to a brittle blizzard using four or five notes at the far right.  Several of these shower attention solely on the white or black keys, or have vastly different demands placed on the left and right hands.  Like Nancarrow, the rhythmic demands are relentless; in many of these, once the pianist gets going the result is like some perpetual motion machine that once started, cannot be stopped or turned off.  It would be easy to dismiss some of them as “robotic,” but the sheer pleasure they provide is anything but cold and perfunctory.  The audience sat in quiet reverence throughout the evening, although some astonished exclamations did peep out after Fanfares and Arc-en-ciel, but with audience enthusiasm bottled up as tightly as this, one can hardly blame anyone for wanting to congratulate Mr. Taylor as quickly and effusively as possible.


There are those who discuss the monuments of piano literature – the sonatas of Beethoven or Scriabin, or any of Bach’s cycles – as if nothing will ever come along to equal them.  But greatness happens everywhere occasionally, so odds are good that something great will happen during our lifetime, and these pieces, hatched in a sixteen-year span during the 1980s and 1990s, are certain to remain one of the touchstones of the art of the piano in the twentieth century.  If I had to pick a favorite I have no idea which one I’d choose.  The intrigue only increases with each hearing.  My prediction is that as the years go by, they will be performed increasingly often, as virtuosic pianists of every stripe wrestle with Ligeti’s challenges.  And the Herculean Mr. Taylor will be recalled as one of the first on that frontier.



Bruce Hodges





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