Ligeti: Complete Piano Music

COMPOSERS: Ligeti
LABELS: BIS
ALBUM TITLE: Ligeti
WORKS: Complete Piano Music
PERFORMER: Fredrik Ullén (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: BIS CD 1683-84 New/Reissue (1941-1994)
Fredrik Ullén’s survey of Ligeti’s piano music is more complete than any before, including not only a first recording of four unpublished miniatures dating from 1941, but also a rejected Etude from the second Book bearing the title (borrowed from a novel by Boris Vian) of L’Arrache-Coeur, or ‘Heart-Snatcher’. I’m not sure, either, that anyone has hitherto bothered to record the surreal Three Bagatelles of 1961. After a quiet bass note has been sounded at the outset of No.1, nothing else happens. The pianist is wittily instructed not to play the pieces from memory; and there’s an optional encore in the shape of a semiquaver rest.

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Ullén is dazzlingly virtuosic in the Etudes, risking some hair-raisingly fast tempos, and his performances are a valuable complement to the authoritative accounts by Pierre-Laurent Aimard. However, all is not so well when it comes to the earlier pieces, which generally sound aggressive and unyielding, with Ullén’s hard touch exacerbated by the closely-balanced sound. And the practice of recording fourhands music by multi-tracking is regrettable: ensemble music of this kind relies on the kind of give-and take between two musicians that can’t be achieved between a single player and a machine. That said, I can’t begin to imagine how Ullén managed the intricate polyrhythms and shifting phase-patterns of the substantial two-piano triptych Monument – Self-portrait – Movement with such phenomenal accuracy. In the end, Aimard (with Irina Kataeva) remains the benchmark both for this work, and for the Etudes; but Ullén is definitely worth hearing. Misha Donat