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Player Piano 10
György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Études pour Piano (1985-1995) (Vertige [1:53]; Der Zauberling [2:16]; En Suspense [1:10]; Entrelacs [1:55]; L’Escalier du Diable [3:46]; A Coloana fara sfârsit [1:03]; White on White [5:01])
Continuum (1968) [3:30]
Drei Stücke für zwei Pianos (1976) (Monument [4:16]; Selbstporträt [5:38]; Bewegung [3:01])
Francis BOWDREY (b.1962) Canon 10/27/12/80 [0:35]
Kyoshi FURUKAWA (b.1959) 12 Formen für Player Piano (1995/99) [12:44]
Gergard STÄBLER (b.1949) playmanic für zwei Player Pianos (1998/99) [19:54]
Jürgen Hocker (Bösendorfer Grand Piano with Ampico Player Piano Mechanism (1927); Fischer Grand Piano with Ampico Player Piano Mechanism (1925))
rec.19-24 June 2005, Immanuelskirche Wuppertal

Experience Classicsonline

A number of these piano rolls have already appeared on CD. As part of the Sony György Ligeti Edition, volume 5 was dedicated to Mechanical Music, and is still one of my favourite Ligeti recordings. The barrel organ version of Hungarian Rock makes it sound like a mad solo from Keith Emerson, and other versions of Continuum and a barrel organ Musica ricercata make SK 62310 a Ligeti must-have. A comparison of the player piano recordings does however see the MDG disc easily coming out on top. The ideal circumstances of that mad week in Wuppertal in which this entire ongoing series of Player Piano discs seems to have been made provide a richer and more colourful piano sound against the more metallic and distant Sony results. Continuum appears in its version for two player pianos as with the Sony disc. The Drei Stücke für zwei Pianos however do not appear on the Sony release.
Listeners accustomed to some of the glorious performances of Ligeti’s piano music may wonder as to the ‘why?’ of having some of his Études arranged for player piano, and may feel stung by the mechanical feel of the way the music is communicated. The best way to approach this is to relax and accept these as entirely different works to those played by human hands. Ligeti was directly influenced by Conlon Nancarrow’s ‘unplayable’ works for player piano, and while his highly demanding Études pour Piano were always originally for human performance, he also recognised the advantages of absolute clarity in the accurate rendition of simultaneously differing tempi and highly complex rhythms. Ligeti also toyed with un-playability in terms of extreme speeds, added octaves and the employment of the entire keyboard.
What we have here is a kind of turbo Ligeti: a direct mind-link to the composer’s imagination, and a set of ideal performances of pieces which you know are just the way he imagined them, with no interpretation of a soloist between him and you the listener. For this reason I find these recordings sometimes even more jaw-droppingly remarkable and emotionally moving than with a pianist involved. Ligeti explores descending scales, ostinato textures and driving rhythms, extended or delayed tonal resolution. There are some delightfully funny moments, such as the little jazz intermezzo in the Selbstporträt, the lightness of touch in serious ‘limping’ rhythms in En Suspense and equally in the almost impressionistic rippling of Entrelacs. Tension and stress grow from a growling boogie on L’Escalier du Diable which is a genuine musical tour de force, rivalling Messiaen for sheer charged-up ecstatic energy. Just when you thought it was safe to come from behind the sofa, A Coloana fara sfârsit kicks in as an even more intense and manic variant on similar ideas. White on White is s strange oasis of calm until 3:43, when a rhythmic coda lifts us rudely from reverie.
Continuum was originally composed for two manual harpsichord, so transcribing it for two pianos was a logical solution to the technical aspects of material which often inhabits the same range on the keyboard. I do tend to prefer the harpsichord version, simply because that dramatic shift about two thirds through can be that much more effective when stops are shifted, rather than the ‘same but louder’ effect on the pianos, but it still remains a seminal work. The minimalism in Continuum also emerges in the last two of the Drei Stücke. The effect of the first, Monument, is a bit like the random ticking of the metronomes in another Ligeti piece, the Poème Symphonique, but with block chords rather than ticks. This becomes a kind of ‘dripping’ of notes in the opening of Selbstporträt, a typical Ligeti development of rhythmic relationships which has the quality of a random swarm, but also an organic development and sense of inevitability like the multiplication of bacteria under a microscope. That almost incidental jazz moment at 3:05 is priceless.
The remaining works on this disc are, as so many of the works in this series, the results of collaboration with player piano expert Jürgen Hocker. Francis Bowdrey’s Canon 10/27/12/80 is a brief sketch of a work: a birthday greeting to Nancarrow which keeps its happy little secret right to the end. Japanese composer Kiyoshi Furukawa initially developed his 12 Formen with computer, but with the player piano in mind as a final expression the sense of developing ideas involving mathematical formulas and algorithms, using the computer as ‘the field glass of the concept’, each musical idea could be given its full potential. There are some fascinating ideas here, and while the harmonic language is less immediately appealing when compared to Ligeti you do have the feeling of sparking creativity at work. Most of the pieces are short, and I’m not entirely convinced many of them couldn’t be realised on anything other than a player piano. The mechanical instrument generates it own sense of timing and surrealist musical relationships however, and if you key in any of these Formen randomly their immediacy and range of qualities is unmistakable.
From a set of miniatures to a single work which is I think one of the longest player piano movements I know. Gerhard Stäbler’s playmanic came about after a meeting with Conlon Nancarrow and is intended as both a homage to the man and his music. The piece “organises areas of the keyboard, lays them out as Bach did in his solo works for violin and cello, ‘devours’ them and ‘goes straight through’ them in sometimes extremely fast motions, sometimes in motions that are extremely slow (and fanned out in fine detail again).” This description from the booklet is not only fair, but is also in some ways a reflection of the confusions and contradictions I feel from this piece. Some moments work remarkably well – the mysterious ‘right hand’ echo gestures for instance, but Stäbler seems determined to repeat banal ideas ad nauseam, and as a result the piece sounds too long even before you are halfway through. I can almost predict the moment at which various types of listeners will switch the thing off in exasperation. On a good day I might last until being finally hacked off entirely by the tremulos at about 12 minutes in, but beyond a sense of reviewer’s duty I doubt in fact that I shall want to play this piece again.
As part of MDG’s excellent series of player piano works, this is an essential volume. Ligeti’s music is fascinating in any medium, but his unique rhythmic eccentricity and satisfying harmonic and textural imagination work exceptionally well on player piano. Comparing his work and some of the other material on the disc starkly shows how it is possible to go from the sublime to the bloomin’ awful through exactly the same medium. Vive la difference, but even if Keith Jarrett came on stage and improvised an accurate Homage à playmanic I suspect he would stand a good chance of being booed off. Baggy old tedium aside, the rest of this disc is at the very least intriguing, and is at its best the best you will ever hear of 20th century player piano.
Dominy Clements

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