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György LIGETI (1923-2006)
The 18 Études
Book 1 (1985) [20:36]
Book 2 (1988-1989) [24:38]
Book 3 (1995-2001) [12:30]
Danny Driver (piano)
rec. 2019, St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, UK
Reviewed as a 24/192 download from hyperion-records.co.uk
Pdf booklet included
HYPERION CDA68286 [57:44]

I came to the music of György Ligeti via Lux aeterna and Atmospheres, as used in Stanley Kubrick’s cod-Nietzschean epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I heard nothing of his until decades later, when I chanced upon a much-praised CD of the Études, played by the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Sony). That recording, made in 1995, only contained Books 1 and 2, as Book 3 wasn’t completed until 2001. Some years later, Aimard recorded the rest of the cycle as part of a Teldec album called African Rhythms. (That’s not as random as it may seem, for Ligeti looked to many cultures for inspiration here.) The first instalment of Swedish virtuoso Fredrik Ullén’s two-volume Ligeti survey, recorded in 1996, included Books 1 and 2 (BIS 783). The follow-up, BIS 983, added the first half of Book 3, which is hardly ideal. The tidiest solution is to invest in the repackaged 2-CD set, released in 2006. It presents the work in its entirety, the two ‘missing’ pieces having been recorded in 2004 (BIS 1683/84). This means that at the time of writing – May 2021 – there are only two standalone, single-disc versions of the complete études to choose from, Driver’s and that of the German pianist Thomas Hell, released in 2012 (Wergo).

It’s been a while – 2015, in fact – since I last reviewed a Danny Driver release. It featured piano concertos by Dorothy Howell, Amy Beach and Cécile Chaminade, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rebecca Miller (Vol. 70 of the long-running Romantic Piano Concerto series from Hyperion). That and his forays into the music of fellow Brits Erik Chisholm and his pairing of works by Benjamin Dale and York Bowen point to a keen interest in niche repertoire. Of course, he ranges more widely, although it appears this Ligeti release is his first recorded venture into late-20th-century works. (Which is not to say he’s unfamiliar with music of the period.) Then again, he is a fully fledged keyboard wiz, as his scintillating selection of pieces by Mili Balakirev so amply demonstrates. Indeed, that CD was one of my top picks for 2011.

As it happens, Driver clears the hurdles of Book 1 with ease, from the fast-flowing first étude to the tumbling, kaleidoscopic sixth. He’s just as adroit when it comes to the mesmeric, rather witty perpetuum mobile that helps to animate the fourth. He also shines in the light, rather wistful fifth. Driver’s aided and abetted in this admirable enterprise by David Hinitt’s top-flight engineering, the sound full and finely detailed, startling in its presence and power. Given all those positives, it seems churlish to suggest there’s a lack of ‘edge’ to his playing here, notably in that highly dramatic opener. Also, contrasts and the music’s contrapuntal elements aren’t as strong as they might be. In short, it’s all too immaculate, too civilised, for my taste.

Driver’s Book 2 certainly has its moments; I just longed for more of them. The Debussian wash and swirl of the seventh is particularly attractive, the piano’s firm, sonorous bass superbly rendered. The point and sparkle of the eighth, the cool cascades of the ninth and the calls and warbles of the tenth are also well executed; all of which is a reminder, if it were needed, that this is a pianist of quick wit and formidable technique. But, all too often, I feel he plays the music too ‘straight’, missing some of its restless subtext, its quirks and subversions, in the process. (Aimard, digging deep, is unassailable in this respect.) And while the rest of the Brit’s Book 2 doesn’t offer any late-breaking epiphanies, there’s an unexpected vigour to the final études – Nos. 13 and 14 – that hints at what might have been. As expected, the comparatively short Book 3 – études 15 to 18 – is technically flawless, Driver’s remarkable dexterity and command of the piano a wonder to behold.

So, what about the competition? First up, with the full eighteen, is Thomas Hell. From the off, it’s clear his Ligeti has the urge and spike I missed in Driver’s performance. Not only that, the German characterises each étude more effectively, one entirely distinct from the next. He’s also strong on colour and rhythmic interplay; he’s certainly more alert to the influence of other musics, especially that of Africa, than his British rival seems to be. Essentially, his is a more imaginative, more complete performance than Driver’s. The Wergo sound, although excellent, is no match for Hyperion’s. On balance, this is a very fine release. Well worth considering.

As for Fredrik Ullén, he’s just completed his multi-volume recording of Kaikhosru Sorabji’s études - all 100 of them - so Ligeti holds no terrors for him. He plays with a fluency and warmth that I like very much indeed, although, as with Driver, stronger rhythms and internal tensions wouldn’t go amiss. Happily, BIS’s recording is well up to the standards of the house. But if you want a truly compelling and eventful tour of this fascinating Ligetian landscape, Aimard’s your man. His unforgettable opener, marvellously manic, sets the tone for what follows. Indeed, he has no equal when it comes to the music’s boldness and unrepentant energy, every colour, phrase and rhythm revealed in a performance that strikes a good balance between raw technique and skittish content. The Sony sound is pretty good, too.

Superbly played and recorded, but older versions still hold sway.

Dan Morgan

Previous review: Stephen Barber

Contents
Book 1 [20:36]
Désordre [2:30]
Cordes à vide [3:41]
Touches bloquées [1:57]
Fanfares [3:46]
Arc-en-ciel [3:50]
Automne à Varsovie [4:52]

Book 2 [24:38]
Galamb borong [2:51]
Fém [2:53]
Vertige [3:22]
Der Zauberlehrling [2:26]
En suspens [2:32]
Entrelacs [3:09]
L'escalier du diable [5:22]
Coloana infinită [2:03]

Book 3 [12:30]
White on white [4:04]
Pour Irina [4:09]
À bout de soufflé [2:36]
Canon [1:41]




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