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György LIGETI (b.1923)
Book I (1985)

I - Désordre
II - Cordes à vide
III - Touches bloquées
IV - Fanfares
V - Arc-en-ciel
VI - Automne à Varsovie
Book II (1988-94)

VII - Galamb Borong
VIII - Fém
IX - Vertige
X - Der Zauberlehring
XI - En suspens
XII - Entrelacs
XIII - L'escalier du diable
XIV - Coloana infinitå
XIVa - Coloana fara sfârsit
Idil Biret, piano
Recorded in the Clara-Wieck-Auditorium, Sandhausen, 17th-18th February, 5th-7th May and 14th-15th June, 2001.
NAXOS 8.555777 [53.42]


The Turkish pianist Idil Biret has made some celebrated Chopin and Brahms discs for Naxos but this disc represents something of a departure for her. That said, Ligeti's piano Etudes are, by and large, very much less intimidating than the composer's general press might have led you to expect. The CD is notable in that it includes the first recording of Book II's XIVa. It is also slightly controversial in that Biret chose to favour the score's musical markings over the precise timing indications when the two came into conflict. So what can you expect if your sole or main exposure to Ligeti is via the choral/vocal works, particularly the (in)famous Lux Aeterna, as used in the soundtrack to Kubrick's 2001? Well, actually, quite a lot of stimulating, accessible and interesting music which shows influences from Chopin, through Debussy and Satie, to Bartók, Nancarrow, jazz and oriental music.

Book I was completed in 1985 and tends to alternate between the faster, rhythmic (often polyrhythmic) pieces, e.g. Fanfares, and more languid, impressionistic ones, such as Arc-en-ciel. Occasionally harsh, this music is never particularly difficult and anyone with much experience of any of the aforementioned composers should not find it too alien.

The more recent Book II begins with a Balinese gamelan inspired piece and, while not as pretty as the equivalent Debussy works, this is absolutely not barbed-wire territory, in terms of ease or difficulty of listening. Typically, and certainly out of necessity in this evocation, the piano is used very much percussively. Again, this is hardly anything new to seasoned Bartókians or, for that matter, the growing band, myself included, of admirers of the often brilliant and humorous player-piano music of Conlon Nancarrow. Fém is rather more conventionally rhythmic but melts into a touching outro. Vertige is just that, a spinning, spiralling, dizzying four minutes and the following Sorcerer's Apprentice is very much in a similar vein, a great deal more fleet of foot than its Dukas orchestral namesake. Again there is a slight oriental influence, à la Debussy, with En suspens, in a much more reflective way, continuing that similarity. The Devil's Ladder is the longest piece on the disc at almost seven minutes and gathers much percussive momentum before its portentous "Lisztian diablerie at the centre". The two remaining pieces, including the premiere XIVa, the only etude conceived directly for player piano, are rhythmic and percussive tours de forces. They are fully worthy of comparison with Nancarrow's equivalent works, bringing to a close a most stimulating and informative disc. For those who have read about Ligeti's orchestral works and imagined some Takemitsu-like diffuseness, this music for piano may come as both a shock and a pleasant surprise. A genuine bargain, with performance and production matching the music every step of the way.

Neil Horner



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