Ligeti Quartets & Études

String Quartet No.1 (Metamorphoses nocturnes)
Etudes for Solo Piano:
No.7: Galamb borong
No.8: Fém
No.3: Touches bloquées
No.4: Fanfares
No.5: Arc-en-ciel
No.6: Automne à Varsovie
String Quartet No.2
Etudes for Solo Piano:
No.12: Entrelacs
No.10: Der Zauberlehrling
No.11: En suspens
No.1: Désordre
No.2: Cordes vides
No.13: L’escalier du diable

Keller Quartet [András Keller & János Pilz (violins); Zoltán Gál (viola) & Judit Szabó (cello)]

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

Reviewed by: Evan Dickerson

Reviewed: 18 May, 2005
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Ligeti’s music need not be that problematic for listeners, providing that the right ‘way in’ to his soundworld is available. This concert hit the spot admirably, with performers able to reconcile the apparently contradictory nature of this neither tonal nor atonal music. With a quartet preceding six piano studies in each half, it required dedicated listening to make sense of the whole. For anyone coming to Ligeti for the first time perhaps it was only at the end of the evening that things fell into place.

Whether one took the concert piece by piece, or at a wider level, the key to it all was alertness of association. The First String Quartet’s distinct debt is to Bartók’s middle quartets, while the Second adheres to dense counterpoint and complex colour or texture. Although performances are not the sole preserve of Hungarian quartets, the Keller delivered an impassioned account of each works, though not without intimacy where needed. The musicians’ tone captured the sideways nod to Bartók and then a non-specific Hungary-Romanian Transylvania that is central to each piece, whilst demonstrating the individuality of Ligeti’s compositional voice through his inherent contradictions.

Density of sound and the use of extremes in dynamics, range, technique, evocations of time and place and emotions spanning rage to ambivalence all play their part in the creation of sound-structures that pit the human against the mechanical – be it functioning or caught in the act of breaking down. The skill of the Keller’s interpretations was in forming a unified whole out of such disparate material, but also knowing when not to.

Across the Études similar concerns are at work, but many long shadows are cast, not least by Chopin’s and Debussy’s compositions in the genre with the techniques of Scarlatti and Schumann. Satie, Liszt, Nancarrow or Hungarian and Balinese flavours (even the sculptures of Constantin Brancuşi) infuse and form the basis of individual studies.

If Aimard’s contribution was the stronger of the evening, it was due to his experience of the compositional influences and willingness to rummage around between the notes and ask questions of the music and himself as performer. Composed as ‘books’, Ligeti’s Études can be played individually, as here, and Aimard’s juxtaposition of earlier pieces against later encouraged a sense of adventure rather than progress. Not to mention the realisation that these works “grow from simplicity to great complexity, behaving like growing organisms […] displaying high virtuosity as a response to my own inadequate piano technique” (Ligeti). Aimard’s formidable wit, intellect, and technical armoury were put at the total disposal of his keenly ordered sequences. The inescapable explosion that is ‘L’escalier du diable’ crowned events, and left even those who know Ligeti well with new revelations.

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