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György LIGETI (1923-2006)
The Complete Piano Music
CD 1
Études pour piano, 1er livre (1985) [18:27]
É tudes pour piano, 2ème livre (1988-93) [21:42]
Études pour piano, 3ème livre (1995-2001) [9:58]
L’arrache-cœur (1994) [4:29]
CD 2
Four Early Piano Pieces (Basso Ostinato) (1941) [2:20]
Induló (Allegro) (March) for piano four hands (1942) [2:06]
Polifón etüd (Allegro comodo) (Polyphonic Étude) for piano four hands (1943) [1:40]
Due Capricci (1947) [4:23]
Allegro for piano four hands (1943) [0:39]
Invention (Resoluto) (1948) [1:08]
Sonatina for piano four hands (1950) [4:23]
Három lakodalmi tánc (Three Wedding Dances) for piano four hands (1950) [2:56]
Musica Ricercata for piano (1951-53) [1951-53]
Chromatische Phantasie (1956) [5:32]
Trois Bagatelles for piano (1961) [1:23]
Monument – Self portrait – Movement. Three Pieces for two pianos (1976) [18:16]
Fredrik Ullén
rec. January 1996, Studio 2 of the Swedish Stockholm Broadcasting Corporation, Stockholm Sweden (Etudes Bks I & II, Invention, Due Capricci, Trois Bagatelles, Chromatische Phantasie). July 1998, Danderyd Grammer School, Sweden (Musica Ricercata, Sonatina, Indulo, Polyphonic Etude, Three Wedding Dances, Allegro, Three pieces for two pianos, Etudes 15 & 16). June 2004, Västerås Concert Hall, Sweden (Etudes 17 & 18, L’arrache-coeur, Four Early Pieces)
BIS-CD-1683/84 [55:56 + 74:30]
 


I’ve learned more about the music of Ligeti lately by playing music from his native regions of Transylvania, Romania and Hungary. Those who know his hopping rhythms, strangely compulsive lyricism and the sense of disciplined madness which seems to inhabit the notes of many of these pieces, will find something similar in spirit in the Horas, Doinas and other styles from that area. Looking at the scores, some of his work appears virtually unplayable – certainly to mere mortals such as myself. Barlines which differ for each hand, pages which are black with spidery notes – there is an incredible virtuosity demanded of the player in some of these pieces which would seem to require superhuman technique. Indeed, several of Ligeti’s piano works were adapted for piano roll, the influence of Conlon Nancarrow’s ‘unplayable’ compositions for that medium having been a great influence on him in his Études pour piano. The gently spoken Jürgen Hocker has been a magnificent champion for these versions of the works (Sony’s Ligeti Edition Vol. 5, Mechanical Music), but neither he nor the composer ever claim that they are better than those by a live pianist – those versions are entities in their own right, and while instantly recognisable, the effect they produce is indeed entirely different to those on these recordings.
 
There have already been two volumes issued in this set: BIS-CD-783 and BIS-CD-983, so those of you who already have these need to know that the only extra tracks are Études 17 and 18 completing Book III, L’arrache-coeur, and the Four Early Pieces.  It almost goes without saying that Fredrik Ullén is superbly in control of every aspect of these pieces, from the sublimely simple to the ridiculously complex. Ullén has performed concerts in which he has played all of the Études more or less at one sitting, so there is no doubting his stamina and ability. These recordings were made in a variety of locations and the project was started 10 years ago, but there is no problem with continuity in terms of sound - which is at every point up to BIS’s extremely high standard - or technical, pianistic content. Ove Nordwall’s introduction and Fredrik Ullén’s notes in the booklet are highly detailed and comprehensive, such that some readers may wish to forearm themselves with a magnifying glass. It is very good to have full chapter and verse on these pieces however, and with plenty of context in terms of Ligeti’s career, and lots of references and cross-references to Ligeti’s other works, and influences, pieces and composers to which some works themselves refer.
 
This issue, with world première recordings of the Four Early Piano Pieces and L’arrache-Coeur, which was originally intended as Étude No.11 (Book II), completes the sum of one of the greatest compositional legacies for piano of the 20th century. The earlier works, which appear on disc 2 of the set, have a beguiling, sometimes almost naïve quality. This simplicity cannot however hide an unstoppable sense of direction and purpose, and with the Due Capricci of 1947 the characteristic Ligeti fingerprints are already present in thumbnail. Ullén rightly points out the significance of Musica Ricercata in terms of Ligeti’s development, and the sense of rigorous personal research, exploration and uncompromising experiment is laid startlingly bare – in parts still sounding modern and adventurous even today. Ligeti’s sense of fun and parody is however never very far away, and this is quite the variety show of pianism – if you don’t like one movement, maybe you’ll like the next one.
 
The Études are of course central to Ligeti’s output for the piano. In each of these works Ligeti experiments with new polyrhythmic configurations, usually divided between the two hands of the pianist. Ligeti learned a great deal from the Ars Nova period (14th century polyphony) and the Ars Subtilior (the refines style at the end of the 14th century). The resulting multi-layered techniques, conceived horizontally rather than vertically, gave Ligeti the flexibility he sought – in which bar-lines form a secondary function, entirely different to the four-square rhythmic solutions which came in after J.S. Bach. Ligeti also investigates the various harmonic possibilities offered by the piano, pushing these permutations to the limit without resorting to de-tuning the piano. In Étude No. 12, Entrelacs, he plays with six tones for each hand, one with five black keys and one white, and the other with the remaining white keys. Within this he varies which white key belongs to the five black keys, offering fantastic harmonic combinations – all discovered improvisationally, while working at the keyboard, a man after my own heart. I was lucky to be present at the world première of Étude No. 15, White on White, which was written for the Ligeti Festival at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague in 1996 and performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard. This is an attempt to destroy all previous ‘white-note’ scales and modes, and Ligeti does this by working with intervals of seconds, first in a kind of gently chasing canon and later, vivacissimo con brio, but always with ‘dissonant’ intervals and avoiding open octaves. The piano-four hands works are played with Ullén taking both parts, done by the player listening to the first part while playing the second one. The effect of this might have been a possible loss of spontaneity, but if there is any I can’t spot it here. The most interesting effect in the Monument is that of parts for two pianos played on exactly the same piano, which makes a bigger difference than you might imagine – it’s like a hall of mirrors, especially in Selbstportrait mit Reich und Riley (und Chopin ist auch dabei).        
 
There are a few alternatives for some of these works, Lucille Chung (Dynamic - see review) and Idil Biret (Naxos - see review) have been reviewed elsewhere on Musicweb-International, but the principal competition in the Études has to be Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Sony, Volume 3 of the Ligeti Edition). Aimard is at least the technical equal of Ullén, and Sony’s piano recording is pretty stunning; this issue did win a Gramophone award in 1997 after all. However, with the edition never completed and a miscellany of players compiling a gallimaufry of other works including pieces for organ and harpsichord on volume 6 the whole thing is a bit of a mess in comparison with this highly desirable BIS set.
 
So, what if anything is likely to prevent you from dashing out and buying this set immediately? Nothing: unless you have a prejudice against ‘modern’ music. Granted, each unto his own, but if you want to possess the 20th century equivalent of Beethoven’s Sonatas then you are simply going to have to bite the bullet and buy this set. With Ligeti, at least you don’t have to put up with Beethoven’s gruff deafness and solemn stamping about. This stunning music is infused with a sensitivity of ear and lightness of touch which should lift your heart and bring a carnival of colours into your mind’s eye. Above all, all of it is instantly recognisable as Ligeti, and played by Frederik Ullén it comes across unique and unembroidered – like the bittersweet centre of the best chocolate you ever tasted.
 
Dominy Clements                        
 

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