Ligeti: The 18 Études review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week

Danny Driver
(Hyperion)
Driver’s recording of Ligeti’s virtuosity-testing Études is full of insight and exuberance

The studies that György Ligeti composed in the last two decades of his life are the most important additions to the solo-piano repertoire in the last half-century. On their own terms, the 18 pieces the composer completed, before ill-health forced him to stop composing four years before his death in 2006, continue the great tradition of transcendental piano writing that stretches back to Chopin and Liszt, always testing their performers’ techniques to the limit and sometimes beyond.

Ligeti: The 18 Études by Danny Driver album cover
Ligeti: The 18 Études by Danny Driver album cover Photograph: Publicity image

Yet stylistically Ligeti’s piano writing owes very little, if anything, to the composers who defined that tradition. The influences shaping these pieces are those that permeate all of his later work, after it changed direction so decisively in the early 1980s – from the polyrhythmic player-piano studies of Conlon Nancarrow to the music of sub-Saharan Africa, chaos theory to the minimalism of Steve Reich. In the Études, Ligeti effectively created a new pianistic vocabulary, while remaining exuberantly himself – the moments when the music seems to evaporate in the highest reaches of the keyboard, or flounders in its lowest depths, find orchestral equivalents throughout his music of more than 40 years.

Danny Driver has been including groups of the pieces in his recital programmes for some years now. It’s clearly music that he admires hugely and understands profoundly, and, as he writes in his sleeve notes, the challenge is “putting the emotional and evocative power of these pieces centre stage despite their intransigent virtuosity”. He manages to do that better than any of the other complete surveys of these pieces I’ve heard; only Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s magisterial recordings, split across two totally separate discs, match and sometimes surpass his insights. But Driver’s performances certainly leave no doubt of the music’s dazzling originality and enduring importance.

This week’s other pick

Four years ago, Mark Viner began his survey of Charles-Valentin Alkan’s piano music for Piano Classics with an outstanding account of the fiendishly demanding Études in All the Major Keys, Op 35, the epitome of keyboard transcendentalism. The main work on his latest disc (the fourth in a projected series of 17) is another of Alkan’s greatest achievements, the Symphonie that forms four movements of his Op 39, the 12 Études in All the Minor Keys, a set that also includes the Concerto for solo piano and a final huge set of variations, Le Festin d’Ésope.

The Symphony is music of immense technical complexity – ferocious double octaves, massive chordal explosions, vertiginous scales – with occasional moments of quiet lyricism, and Viner negotiates it all with wonderful aplomb and just the right amount of swagger. He doesn’t spare himself on the rest of the disc either, in a sequence of marches and two programmatic paraphrases, all dazzlingly played.

Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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