Ligeti: Etudes pour piano

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COMPOSERS: György Ligeti
ALBUM TITLE: Ligeti: Etudes pour piano
WORKS: Etudes pour piano
PERFORMER: Thomas Hell (piano)

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If there’s any music from the last 30 years that deserves the name ‘classic’, it’s surely the three volumes of Piano Etudes by György Ligeti. When the first Etudes appeared in the 1980s, their brilliance and technical difficulty inspired awe, and only one or two pianists dared tackle them. Now they’re almost commonplace.

In the early days, pianists felt obliged to obey Ligeti’s injunction to go always to extremes – of loudness, speed or sheer frenzy. Nowadays, as this new recording shows, they are more relaxed and worldly-wise. There’s a good example of this in the first Etude, Désordre, at the point where the texture changes from running semiquavers to wrist-breaking octaves: rather than trying to maintain the breakneck tempo, Hell marks the spot with a deliberate slowing of tempo, which allows him room for another exciting accelerando.  

In general, it’s the fluidly atmospheric or reflective Etudes that come off best. The dizzyingly descending pianissimo scales of No. 9, Vertige, are a miracle of precise fingerwork, and the jazzy syncopations of En suspens have a beautifully lazy charm. There are moments where one wishes Hell would ‘let go’ more, but overall, this is a magnificent recording.

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Ivan Hewett