LIGETI: Etudes, Books 1 and 2 (Idil Biret) (Naxos: 8.555777)
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György Ligeti (b. 1923)
Etudes, Books I and II
As György Ligeti himself describes it, the impetus for "... composing highly virtuosic piano études ... was, above all, my own inadequate piano technique". Solo piano music is prominent in his output prior to his escape to the West in 1956, notably the Musica ricercata cycle completed in 1953, but little emerged during his involvement with the European avant-garde over the next two decades. At the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, Ligeti rethought all aspects of his composing idiom, resulting in music which might be described as post-tonal in its creative and unprejudiced approach to the Classical tradition. Among the first fruits of this reassessment was Book I of the piano Etudes, comprising six pieces and completed in 1985. A second book of eight pieces was composed between 1988 and 1994, while a third book was started in 1995.
Numerous influences are at work on these Etudes. The étude cycles of Chopin and Debussy, each vital to the evolution of the piano and its literature, are an inevitable presence, as are the keyboard techniques of Scarlatti and Schumann. Yet the rôle of sub-Saharan African culture is crucial in the often complex rhythmic polyphony that motivates Ligetis Etudes; indeed, polyrhythms and shifting pulses are essential to the sound and feel of the music at all times. Geometric patterns, especially the self-repetition of fractals, were a vital stimulus, as were the rhythmic and metric innovations of the maverick American composer Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) and the pianism of such jazz greats as Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans. Yet there is no sense of eclecticism in the music itself: to quote the composer again, "... it is neither avant-garde nor traditional, neither tonal nor atonal. ... These are ... études in the pianistic and compositional sense. They proceed from a very simple core idea, and lead from simplicity to great complexity: they behave like growing organisms".
The Etudes can be played complete, in Books, as a selection, or individually. Brief notes on each of the first fifteen follow below:
I. Désordre (Molto vivace, vigoroso, molto ritmico): a fast-flowing study in polyrhythmic velocity, moving upwards and almost off the top of the keyboard.
II. Cordes à vide (Andantino con moto, molto tenero): chords of a Satie-esque simplicity become more complex as the prevailing rhythm gradually folds in on itself.
III. Touches bloquées (Presto possibile, sempre molto ritmico): two main rhythmic patterns interlock with distinctly - and distinctively! - Bartókian results.
IV. Fanfares (Vivacissimo molto ritmico, con allegria e slancio): another polyrhythmic study, in which the melody and its accompaniment frequently exchange rôles.
V. Arc-en-ciel (Andante molto rubato, con eleganza, with swing): the most Debussy-ian study, rising and falling in arcs which aptly evoke the rainbow of the title.
VI. Automne à Varsovie (Presto cantabile, molto ritmico e flessibile): the most descriptive study, involving continuous transformation of the initial descending idea, and mirroring the first study by finishing at the bottom of the keyboard.
VII. Galamb borong (Vivacissimo luminoso, legato possibile): subtly shifting rhythmic patterns evoke the sound of the Balinese gamelan - hence the nonsense Balinese of the title.
VIII. Fém (Vivace risoluto, con vigore): from the Hungarian for metal, a tensile study in rhythmic continuity, with an unexpectedly poetic coda in which the underlying harmonic pattern is laid bare.
IX. Vertige (Prestissimo sempre molto legato, sehr gleichmässig): the harmonic and spatial distance between the two hands is one of suitably sheer proportions.
X. Der Zauberlehrling (Prestissimo, staccatissimo, leggierissimo): the sorcerers apprentice, a lightly-tripping melodic line kept in perpetual rhythmic motion.
XI. En suspens (Andante con moto, "avec lélégance du swing"): in contrast, an ethereal web of harmony constantly on the verge of a tonal-sounding resolution.
XII. Entrelacs (Vivacissimo molto ritmico, sempre legato, con delicatezza): a gentle criss-crossing of rhythmic patterns, increasing in dynamics as it traverses the keyboard from right to left.
XIII. Lescalier du diable (Presto legato ma leggiero): the Devils Ladder, the longest of the studies to date, a driving toccata which zig-zags its way across the keyboard, with more than a touch of Lisztian diablerie at the centre.
XIV. Coloana infinitå (Presto possibile, tempestoso con fuoco): inspired by a tall, columnar sculpture by Constantin Brancusi, harmony and rhythm are fused in this dense column of sound, as it powers beyond the top of the keyboard.
XIVa. Coloana fara sfârsit (Presto possibile, tempestoso con fuoco): so absorbed was Ligeti by the rhythmic complexity possible with Nancarrows player piano that he arranged several of the Etudes for the instrument. Etude XIVa is different in having been conceived directly for player piano - in the composers words: "
since the desired Presto of this version is more likely to be realised on a mechanical piano
". In this recording Idil Biret gives her personal interpretation, as she explains below, laying bare the rhythmic and metrical subtleties of the piece.
Interpreting the Ligeti Etudes:
Musical markings and timing indications
György Ligeti has given very precise timing indications for all the Etudes, together with the musical markings. For example, the timing indication for Etude XII is 2.56 minutes and Etude XIVa is 1.41 minutes. After consideration, I have decided to follow the musical markings rather than the strict timing indications of these works.
Composers metronomic marks and timing indications have always been problematic for interpreters. Composers hear inwardly the work they are creating, sometimes setting very fast tempos which are not always tested on the instrument. The performer who wants to deliver all the nuances, all the accents and play the work as close as possible to the composers requirements often faces the dilemma of whether to play according to the works musical markings or follow the timing indications. The latter choice may result in omitting some important musical signs, which become practically impossible to render at high speed. My preference, where necessary, has been for the musical markings. Ligeti himself seems to point in this direction when he writes in the notes to Etude No.7 that "the time signature acts only as a guideline".