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)