LIGETI:  Etudes  Books 1 and 2 (1 - 14a)
Idil Biret, pianist
NAXOS 8.555777 (B) (DDD) TT:  53:42

Ligeti wrote his etudes coming out of a crisis of style. The crisis led to his latest manner, not so aggressively avant-garde as before and more or less tonal and rhythmically regular, even dance-like. The Etudes reflect Ligeti's interest in complex polyrhythms, extending even to the player-piano works of Conlon Nancarrow. Indeed, he conceived one of the etudes for the mechanical instrument itself. For me, the hallmarks of Ligeti as a composer are his delicate poetic sensibility allied to his amazingly precise sonic imagination. Even in something as early as Lux aeterna, a half-step can make all the difference in the world.

Idil Biret describes herself as a "disciple" of Wilhelm Kempff, and that to me is the matter. I never particularly cared for Kempff either, and these readings do strike me as very Kempff-like: broad, rough, and a bit lumpen. In her brief comments on her approach to the etudes, Biret talks about following the composer's musical markings, rather than the timings. I certainly don't fault her for this decision, but it's exactly the music that I miss in this collection of notes. There's very little phrasing here, especially in the slower, dreamier movements. I listen in vain for the precision and the poetry characteristic of the composer. The playing alternates between always-hard and always-shapeless.

Naxos, as ever, has a low price, but this time you get only what the composer put down on the page, rather than the music he imagined. It's a rare miss for the label, but a miss nevertheless. Better to go with the Pierre-Laurent Aimard recording on Sony 62308.

S.G.S. (May 2003)