Etudes Books 1, 2 & 3
Four Early Piano Pieces (Basso Ostinato)
Három Lakodalmi Tánc
Monument Self Portrait Movement
Fredrik Ullén (piano)
Recorded between January 1996 and June 2004 in various locations in Sweden
Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler
Reviewed: November 2006
CD No: BIS
BIS-CD-1683/84 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 11 minutes
The complete piano music of György Ligeti (1923-2006) bounded by a release that re-issues two CDs which first appeared separately in 1996 and 1998 and now includes additional pieces which Fredrik Ullén recorded in 2004: the last two Etudes (numbers 17 and 18), and the premiere recordings of L’arrache-coeur (originally intended as Etude 11) and the Four Early Piano Pieces of 1941.
The music on these discs, then, spans virtually the whole of György Ligeti’s career. The series of Etudes that he began writing in 1985 occupies the first disc. They have established themselves as classics of twentieth-century piano music, and Ullén is up against some formidable competition, notably Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Sony). Ullén is generally faster, and BIS’s recording is closer and less resonant. Detailed comparisons reveal some fascinating differences of approach. In ‘Cordes à vide’, for instance, Aimard is just a bit more elusive, while the more crystalline Ullén brings out the accented notes more. Ullén’s tempo fluctuations in ‘Arc-en-ciel’ are more subtle, while Aimard makes the final prestigious descent in ‘Autumn in Warsaw’ more scary. His dynamic range in ‘Galamb borong’ is wider than Ullén’s; Ullén is a bit more impulsive in ‘Fém’; his drier recorded sound makes ‘Vertige’ less legato than Aimard’s, but the melody stands out more clearly, as Ligeti indicates. ‘Der Zauberlehrling’ is the most breathtakingly virtuoso performance on Ullén’s disc, dazzlingly fast and full of glitter and sparkle.
Disc 2 rounds up the other pieces and presents them in chronological order. They include some early works for piano/four hands and the two-piano triptych Monument – Selbstporträt – Bewegung, from 1976. For these BIS resorts to double-tracking, a form of musical cloning that always strikes me as a bit of a cheat, since it removes the element of give-and-take between two different musical personalities that is surely an important element of the music.
The early pieces, all brief, show just how deeply the young Ligeti was indebted to Bartók, not least in terms of rhythm. The first of the Four Early Piano Pieces, from 1941, could almost have come from one of the early books of Bartók’s compendium of increasingly difficult teaching pieces, Mikrokosmos, while the Allegro for piano/four hands, from two years later, resembles the more energetic passages of the older composer’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Polyphonic Etude, also from 1943, is more prophetic of the later Ligeti in its treatment of different layers. From 1950 come the Sonatina for piano/four hands, and Three Wedding Dances, also for four hands, their Bartókian inheritance plain to hear.
In the eleven short movements that make up Musica Ricercata Ligeti gets to grips with some of the concerns that were leading his musical development beyond both Bartók’s influence and officially-approved styles, music that he had to keep away from public scrutiny in the hard-line political and artistic atmosphere of early-1950s’ Hungary. They also bring more comparisons with Aimard. Again, Ullén is generally brisker, and also has a more flexible approach to tempo – he plays down the ‘rigido’ in Ligeti’s heading for No.2, for instance, and is freer in No.4 (a Strauss-cum-Ravel waltz that never quite gets into gear). He sets himself a brisk tempo for No.8 (one of the pieces from Musica Ricercata that was re-worked in the Six Bagatelles for wind quintet) that makes Aimard sound almost staid by comparison. Yet, Aimard is more lyrical in No.10, and his bells in the middle of the preceding piece, in memory of Bartók, ring out more frantically.
The Chromatic Fantasy of 1956, like the Four Early Pieces, remains unpublished; indeed “The New Grove” lists it under “Juvenilia – works the composer deems unworthy of performance”. It’s an interesting five-minute piece, with a positively schizophrenic expressive range that Ullén fully explores. The Three Bagatelles, from 1961, are sometimes described as Ligeti’s response to John Cage’s notorious silent piece, 4’33”, though Paul Griffiths, in his book on the composer, asserts that Ligeti did not know Cage’s piece at the time. Together they form one of the most outrageous examples of Ligeti’s famously quirky sense of humour – the first movement consists of a single note, the remaining two are silent. Ullén meets their interpretative challenges with aplomb.
Finally comes Monument – Selbstporträt – Bewegung, a considered response to American minimalism, as the title of the second piece – ‘Self-portrait with Reich and Riley (and Chopin is there too)’ – makes clear. The double-tracked Ullén is appropriately gritty in ‘Monument’, one of Ligeti’s most uncompromisingly stark pieces, puts the shifting patterns of ‘Self portrait’ vividly under the microscope, and conveys the liquid quality that Ligeti identified in the third piece.
This collection of Ligeti’s piano music is self-recommending on grounds of completeness alone. While Ullén’s performances of the Etudes may not displace Aimard’s they make an interesting alternative. Disc 2 charts Ligeti’s development during the first thirty or so years of his career and it’s a fascinating journey. The brittle piano sound may deter some listeners, but for anyone wanting to get to grips with how this music works it gives an ideally clear sonic image. The admirably full booklet notes include a general survey of Ligeti’s life and work by Ove Nordwall, who conceived the project along with Ullén, but who died in 1998, and Ullén’s detailed discussion of the works themselves.