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György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Études pour piano - Livre I (1985), Livre II (1988-94) [42:17]
Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano (1982) [21:37]
Eric Huebner (piano)
Yuki Numata Resnick (violin); Adam Unsworth (horn)
rec. Lippes Concert Hall, Slee Hall, University at Buffalo, New York, 2019 (Études), 2015 (Trio)

These works from Ligeti’s late period make an attractive coupling, especially in performances as good as these. The great Hungarian master took a break from composing after his two harpsichord works from 1978 until 1982 when he produced his Horn Trio. This chamber piece took his audience by surprise with its more listener-friendly style and thematic inspiration. It ushered in more than twenty years of creativity where Ligeti composed some of his greatest works, including the concertos for piano, violin, and horn, the song cycle Síppal, Doppel, Nádihegedűval, and three books of piano Études.

The Études, in particular, have become a standard part of the twentieth-century piano repertoire and are often considered the most significant set of such works after Debussy and perhaps even Chopin. Many pianists select only a few to perform or record, but there are at least three sets on disc that include all three books. These are by Fredrik Ullén, whose discs contain the complete Ligeti piano music (BIS), Thomas Hell (Wergo), and Kei Takumi (Sheva Collection). Others prefer only the first two books, including Idil Biret (Naxos) and Eric Huebner here. It is worth noting that in Sony’s Ligeti Edition Pierre Laurent Aimard recorded Books 1 and 2 along with the first Étude from Book 3 because that was the last one Ligeti had composed when Aimard recorded them. He later added the remaining three along with new performances of three of the earlier Études on a disc titled “African Rhythms” that also contains music by Steve Reich and recordings of Aka Pygmies. Aimard’s accounts have remained the benchmarks for me as for many others and are the ones I am using to compare these new performances by Eric Huebner. Huebner is Associate Professor of Music at the University at Buffalo (SUNY) and also on the piano faculty of the Juilliard School in New York. In 2012 he was appointed pianist of the New York Philharmonic, where he regularly collaborates with Philharmonic musicians in performances of chamber music.

To generalize the differences of interpretation, Aimard is the more nuanced of the two pianists while Huebner brings a refreshing clarity to the music. Both are technically impeccable. Huebner seems to focus on the rhythms as he emphasizes them in the first Étude, Désordre (Disorder) and the third one, Touches bloquées (Blocked keys). In the latter he plays notes staccato with no use of the sustain pedal, while Aimard brings out the mystery with judicious use of the pedal. It would be an exaggeration, though, to say that Huebner eschews the sustain pedal. One is more aware of this resonance in the second Étude, Cordes ŕ vide (Open strings), with Huebner than with Aimard. Overall, the two pianists’ tempos are quite similar and the timings often differ by only a few seconds. However, in En Suspens (In Suspense), the eleventh Étude, Huebner is rather slower and melancholic and not as “spooky” as Aimard. The opposite is true in Arc-en-ciel (Rainbow), the fifth Étude, timing at 3:52 for Aimard and 3:25 for Huebner. Both project the clanging bell sounds, but Aimard is if anything more haunting, even majestic.

There is so much variety and colour in the Études that it takes several auditions to absorb it all. The influence of jazz and of Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano music is obvious, but so also are the dance rhythms of Central European folk music. In Étude No. 6, Automne ŕ Varsovie (Autumn in Warsaw), the folk influence is pervasive in the descending lament motif that Ligeti employed in several of his later compositions, including the Horn Trio. Both pianists have the measure of the music here and their timings are identical (4:27). Bulgarian dance rhythms and the influence of Bartók characterize Fanfares (Étude No. 4), where the ostinato figure borrowed from the second movement of the Horn Trio underpins the fluid melody. Aimard is outstanding here, but Huebner is nearly as fine even if one is not as aware of the running accompaniment. Likewise, his loud chords later in the music do not have quite the impact of Aimard’s.

I also prefer Aimard in the final two Études, (The Devil’s Staircase) and Coloana infinită (The Infinite Column). In L’escalier du diable he really drives the jazzy theme with terrific dynamics, building from the very quiet to loud and crashing, until he reaches the top of the keyboard. Huebner is also fine, if not quite as memorable. Still he allows one to hear everything clearly with greater detachment in the fast runs. He is just a bit more cautious, less jazzy and riotous than Aimard. Their timings are quite close with Aimard taking 5:16 and Huebner 5:18 for the piece. Aimard is really forceful in Coloana infinită, beginning the piece in a blur. It sounds like he is holding the sustain pedal throughout. Huebner is not nearly as powerful and somewhat deliberate and careful. On the whole, though, the newcomer has much to offer in these Études, the first book of which earned Ligeti the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in 1986. What makes this disc particularly attractive is having these pieces coupled with the glorious Horn Trio.

The Horn Trio carries the designation ‘Hommage ŕ Brahms’, but the only thing in common with Brahms’s popular work is that it is also in four movements. Ligeti was commissioned to compose the trio as a companion piece to the Brahms Horn Trio, thus the designation. In fact Ligeti was more influenced by Beethoven and even references him with a distorted quotation of the opening of the Op. 81 Piano Sonata ‘Les Adieux’, for the first three notes of the Horn Trio.
Ligeti had developed the habit in the late 1970s of playing piano in chamber music of the Classical and Romantic periods with students in his apartment and giving lectures on music of those earlier times. This likely had a substantial influence on the direction his own compositions would take, following all the avant-garde works of the preceding years of his career. The Horn Trio ushered in this final compositional period.

Violinist Saschko Gawriloff, hornist Hermann Baumann, and pianist Eckart Besch (who commissioned Ligeti) premiered the Horn Trio and recorded it for Wergo, presumably an authoritative account which I have not heard. Nonetheless, the recording that has served as my reference version is the one by Gawriloff, Marie-Luise Neunecker, and Aimard included in Sony’s Ligeti Edition. That performance would take some beating and I do not expect to ever hear it played better. That said, this new account by violinist Yuki Numata Resnick, hornist Adam Unsworth, and pianist Eric Huebner is also excellent. There is a fine balance among the three instruments and the sound has great presence. All three musicians really get inside the music. There is little to choose between these two performances in the first movement. However, Gawriloff and company are more playful in the second movement, Vivacissimo molto ritmico, with its violin harmonics and virtuosic horn part. At the same time, the new account is surely exciting and even faster than the earlier one, leaving the listener breathless. The sound emphasizes the bass end of the spectrum. The musicians on Sony characterize the jerky march of the third movement perfectly, while Numata Resnick and company, while still very fine, are rather less spontaneous. The quiet section in this A-B-A structure could have had more contrast with the march, as is demonstrated on the Sony recording. The final movement is one of Ligeti’s famous laments and is marked Lamento. Adagio. Both ensembles underscore the essential sadness of this music extremely well and it would be difficult to choose between them. Overall timings, which admittedly do not tell the whole story, are quite close in these two accounts. I also compared them with another very good one by Rolf Schulte, William Purvis, and Alan Feinberg (Bridge) that is coupled with Brahms’s Horn Trio. There the tempos vary more, especially the last movement where the musicians take 9:25 vs. 7:44 (Sony) and 6:59 (New Focus) and lose tension at times. All three accounts capture the essence of this magnificent work, and the coupling on Bridge is appropriate if less common than the other two. Still, if the Sony account takes pride of place, Numata Resnick, Unsworth, and Huebner are not far behind.

The physical product is attractive and contains informative notes by Nicholas Emmanuel, a PhD candidate in Historical Musicology at the University at Buffalo and recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. There is one error in the listing of the Études that should have been corrected: Coloana infinită is given as Columna, which is understandable since it means “column.” As a whole, though, this new recording does Ligeti proud.
Leslie Wright

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