Ligeti • Beethoven
This recording puts the great trickster and illusionist of modern music, György Ligeti, next to Beethoven, the heroic exemplar of Enlightenment optimism. It seems a perverse enterprise: what could these two possibly have in common?
Jeremy Denk feels there really is a connection, putting Beethoven’s most otherworldly Sonata, the C minor Op. 111, alongside 13 of Ligeti’s glittering, dangerously mercurial Etudes. The link, he says in the booklet notes, lies ‘between Beethoven’s vast timeless canvas and Ligeti’s bite-sized bits of infinity’.
In fact, Denk’s masterly and absorbing performances make a rather different connection, exemplified by the way he tackles Ligeti’s first Etude. Several pianists, including one or two starry ones, try to be impressive by playing the opening faster than they can really manage; as the accents start to come thick and fast, they have to slow down and hope that the excitement will make up for their change in tempo. Denk, on the other hand, launches at a less breakneck speed, but maintains the tempo rigorously.
The end result is more exciting. Honesty and a rounded humanity define these performances, rather than a strenuous striving for the infinite. Denk makes Ligeti’s En suspens, an exercise in jazzy rubato, more tender and touching than any other performance I’ve heard. And the opening of Beethoven’s great Sonata has a noble understatement which is more affecting than grandiloquent. The variation movement is beautifully paced, the return of the theme moving.
In all, it’s a marvel.