An étude (or study) is a piece that poses a specific technical and/or interpretive challenge. The famous études are those by Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy. When the iconoclastic, experimental 20th century composer György Ligeti began to write his own, he admitted he wasn’t up to playing them: he said he hoped to transform his own 'inadequacy into professionalism'.
Though interested in the technical side, Ligeti was equally concerned with the extremes of sound. Many of the challenges of these studies concern rhythm and meter (influenced by complex African rhythms and jazz as well). In Automn a Varsovie he requires the pianist 'with only two hands … to play simultaneously at two, three, sometimes four different speeds”. Harmonically, he described his music as 'neither tonal nor atonal'.
Ligeti produced his First Book of Études in 1985, his Second during the 1990s. Book 3 was intended to contain six pieces but only four had been completed before Ligeti’s death in 2006. The first two books have been recorded several times, but it is illuminating to compare Danny Driver’s excellent version with the touchstone recording by the composer’s early champion Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Aimard’s chiselled pianism presents this music as avant-garde. His accents in Désordreare savagely incisive; his lyricism in Cordes a vide coolly detached. Driver’s fuller sound and less explosive accents link the first to Debussy, and in the second he brings out elements of Scriabin (who also wrote études). In Driver’s hands, En suspens (Book 2) might be a forgotten piece by Satie.
Driver brings this music in from the cold to the pianistic mainstream. If I prefer Aimard, it may be force of habit. Driver’s expressive approach will have broad appeal, and he certainly takes Ligeti’s technical hurdles in his stride.