I recently took part in an online conversation about Bach’s Goldberg Variations in which several pianists affirmed their devotion to Glenn Gould’s legendary 1955 recording. For many, it serves as the benchmark against which all subsequent accounts (including Gould’s own) are measured.
The same might be said of Pierre Laurent-Aimard’s world-premiere recording of György Ligeti masterful Piano Études (1985-2001). Even as these works have been taken up by a growing number of pianists, one still experiences an initial shock of unfamiliarity when a performer launches into the first étude, Désordre, at a more deliberate tempo than Aimard’s.
But Jeremy Denk’s more poetic, less kinetic conception on his new Nonesuch disc is wholly convincing. Ligeti’s late works are profoundly concerned with the juxtaposition of contrasting rhythms and tempi, which Denk approaches as one might a Bach fugue: these performances are all about phrasing and voicing. Denk’s sensitive pacing affords greater breathing room to Ligeti’s underrated lyricism, and to his fleeting nods towards triadic harmony.
The pairing with Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, op. 111 in C minor, is at once inventive and unremarkable. Indeed, the most gratifying aspect of Denk’s superb recording is that it offers up the Études simply as great piano music. Ligeti’s varied influences – from Chopin and Debussy to the player piano studies of Conlon Nancarrow, from jazz and non-Western music to chaos theory – recede into the background, as we listen to an eloquent pianist bring timeless sensibilities to bear on an evolving canon.