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György LIGETI (b. 1923)
Drei Stücke (1976) [15’13]. Fünf Stücke (1942-51) [11’27]. Etudes, Premier Livre (1985) [19’47]. Etudes, Troisième Livre (ongoing) [10’43].
Lucille Chung, Alessio Bax (pianos/piano duet).
Rec. Rocca Sforzesca, Italy, on September 15th-17th, 2003. DDD
DYNAMIC CDS434 [58’48]

Lucille Chung is obviously a young lady of no ordinary talent. She has bravely chosen to record the piano works of György Ligeti and therefore treads directly into the territory of Pierre-Laurent Aimard, that composer’s interpreter par excellence. Aimard’s fairly recent accounts of Ligeti at the Wigmore Hall (October last year, ) still ring in the ears - they made an extraordinary impression. It takes a special sort of bravery, there is no other word for it, to tackle these scores head-on. The very sight of the printed page will scare most off. To interpret them with musicality and intelligence, as Lucille Chung has done, is no small achievement.

Book II of the Etudes, in case you are wondering, was included in her first Ligeti disc for Dynamic (CDS358). Impressive programming, then, to present the remaining two books we have so far, along with some works for two pianos (the Drei Stücke) and piano duet (the Fünf Stücke).

The Six Etudes that make up Book 1 constitute some of the most inspired piano writing of the twentieth century. No small claim, true, but every time I hear them I realise there is more to discover, a seemingly infinite well of ideas. The first, ‘Désordre’, is nightmarish for the pianist in its relentless speed. Chung opts to present it almost like a Nancarrow player-piano piece (Aimard brought more of a sense of shape, and also excitement, to it), yet at the climax (1’30), she sounds a little careful.

Chung’s strengths lie in the creation of the beautiful in sound, so the second Etude, ‘Cordes à vide’, is a crystalline drawing. ‘Touches bloquées’ is the most impressive of the set, however, a Ligeti playful Scherzo if ever there was one. Similarly the obsessive scalic fragments against legato chordal figures of ‘Fanfares’ is great fun. The fanfares are recognisable. You can almost hear Chung thinking ‘horns!’ as she plays.

Alas ‘Arc en ciel’ is less successful, probably because Chung seems to try to apply Chopinesque rubato to music that won’t take it. A shame, as she evidently realises the sheer beauty of the harmonies; the glittering descents of ‘Automne à Varsovie’ almost make up for it.

Chung responds well to the varied demands of the four Etudes from Book 3 here. The slow-moving, hyper-beautiful ‘White on White’ (1995) is really lovely, ending like a music-box winding down. The more martellato ‘Pour Irina’ (composed for Darmstadt, so perhaps the ‘harder’ exterior should be unsurprising) reveals Chung’s finger-strength. I just can’t decide whether the end is supposed to be cheeky or not - maybe Chung couldn’t, either.

The manic ‘A bout de souffle’ is more relentless writing. Here more mania from Chung would be welcome. The piece should surely sound as if the player or the composer is experiencing wild panic. That quality should be communicated to the audience, especially as it would make an even more marked contrast to the final ‘Canon’ whose glacial beauty Chung projects well.

The disc kicks off with two sets for piano duo and piano duet. The Drei Stücke for two pianos is less demanding fare, with its deliberately irritating repeated octaves in the first piece (‘Monument’) before the two players gradually part company. The more approachable, teasing, Ligeti is present in ‘Selbstportrait mit Reich und Riley (und Chopin ist auch dabei’) with its nod to minimalism, becoming skittish before turning, later, to the violent. The delicate final piece, (‘In fliessender Bewegung’) reverses the process of ‘Monument’, the players beginning apart and slowly congealing into a disembodied chorale. All is here crystal clear, although there is a characteristic ‘ping’ to some of the upper notes - characteristic, that is, of the Yamaha pianos used throughout this disc.

The Five Pieces are sweetly Bartókian, even attaining, in the last of the ‘Three Wedding Dances’ that together constitute the third piece, the carefree. Only the second piece, ‘Polifón etüd’ (‘Polyphonic Etude’) is truly grey.

Highly recommended, then. Do try to hear the smaller pieces at least once as they afford much delight, but it is the Etudes that provide the main course, and very filling they are, too.

Colin Clarke

Lucille Chung Biography

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