Rarely has a recent work been so rapidly accepted into the general repertoire as Ligeti’s piano études or studies. They were written between 1985 and 2001. Ligeti originally intended to write twelve, in two books, on the model of Debussy’s piano études, but apparently he enjoyed writing them so much that he eventually wrote eighteen, in three books, and would have added more had illness not prevented him.
The stimulus to do so came partly from his work as professor of composition at Hamburg, with the availability of a piano, and also music from a wide variety of cultures, including from outside the Western tradition, and in particular the studies for player-piano by the American Conlon Nancarrow: polyrhythmic pieces unplayable by a human pianist. He described his études as ‘highly emotive music of high contrapuntal and metric complexity with labyrinthine branches and perceptible melodic forms, but without any 'back to' gesture, not tonal but not atonal either.’
They are indeed works of formidable difficulty, and a mere look at the printed page is enough to make the heart of the stoutest pianist quail. Although they do require the traditional virtuoso techniques involving speed, finger dexterity and strength, perhaps the greatest difficulties are of a different order: the two hands often play nearly independent lines with different rhythms and stresses. Ligeti’s writing exploits the whole range of the piano, including the very highest pitches, and the dynamic indications go from the extremely loud to the extremely quiet. He is also fond of the carrying a figure up to the extreme heights and then starting again in the depths, and of doing both simultaneously. He gave the individual études titles, in various languages, which indicate the character of the pieces. I should add that Ligeti, though he worked out the études at the piano, could not actually play them himself.
Early recordings, including those by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, admired by the composer, emphasize the technical challenges and the virtuosity required and elicit gasps of awe and amazement from listeners. However, Danny Driver brings a rather different approach. While shirking none of the difficulties, he brings both a sense of poetry and one of fun: these pieces are not glorified Hanon or Czerny exercises but real works of music. He starts in fine style with No 1, Désordre, which typifies the challenges of the work: the right hand plays only on the white notes, the left hand on the black and the pulses and stresses and even the bar lines of the two hands separate. But this is followed by No 2, Cordes à vide, which begins with gentle arpeggio patterns which, however, become more and more complex with increasing subdivisions of the beat. This calls for gentle poetic playing, often very quiet in complex passages, and this Driver gives us. I noticed this with the other slower études, such as No 5, Arc-en-ciel, and No 11, En Suspens. His sense of fun comes out for example in the very Bartókian No 4, Fanfares, and the joyously irregular No 8, Fém. And in what is, currently anyway, my favourite of the set, No 6, Automne à Varsovie, which features a falling figure recurring in overlapping groups at different speeds, he brings out a tragic quality.
Driver has a wide repertoire, which goes back to Bach and Handel as well as including the standard piano works and a good deal of contemporary music and others off the beaten track. I think his wide experience of music has helped him bring light and shade to these demanding études and bring out their qualities as compositions. Incidentally, he writes his own, very helpful, sleevenote, from which I have borrowed. The recording is luminous.
There are a number of other recordings, but some are only of selected études while some complete recordings are split over two discs. This includes Aimard, whose Sony version would be the standard reference were it complete – but when Aimard recorded it, Ligeti had yet to compose the last three études, which Aimard subsequently included on another disc, African rhythms, from Teldec. So, if you have the quite reasonable wish to have the complete set on one disc, this will do very nicely.