The Naxos
Composer of the Month

In July, Naxos released its recording of Roy Harris’s Symphonies 3 and 4, part of a complete cycle of the composer’s symphonies.  

Roy HARRIS: Symphony No. 3 and No. 4, “Folk Song Symphony”
Colorado Symphony and Chorus, Marin Alsop

CD of the Month

Toru TAKEMITSU: A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden, etc.
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop

Roy Harris: Symphonies 3 and 4
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John Tavener: Lament for Jerusalem
Podcast Feed

Classical Music Spotlight presents a special interview with Maestro Leonard Slatkin
Podcast Feed

William Bolcom's Songs of Innocence and of Experience
Podcast Feed

Friday, June 23, 2006
Technique and Tradition: Ligeti's Piano Etudes

Whether hard-core contemporary music fans like it or not, most people know Gyorgi Ligeti, who passed away recently at the age of 83, for his Atmospheres and Lux Aeterna, the eerily beautiful masses of sound that Stanley Kubrick used in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Kubrick turned to Ligeti two more times in his career, using Lontano in The Shining and the second movement of Musica ricercata in Eyes Wide Shut, his final film. Unlike Atmospheres, Lux Aeterna, and Lontano, which were written for orchestra (Atmospheres and Lontano) and chorus (Lux Aeterna), Musica ricercata is a solo piano piece, a genre that movie-goers may not necessarily have associated with the composer but one for which Ligeti, by the release of Eyes Wide Shut in 1999, had built an impressive repertoire.

Perhaps the most famous of Ligeti’s piano works are his three books of Études, written between 1985 and 2001. The first two books, challenging for the performer but entertaining for the listener, are available in a 2003 Naxos recording by Idil Biret.

Ligeti cited his “own inadequate piano technique” as the initial inspiration for writing the Études, noting that “I would love to be a fabulous pianist! To develop a clean technique, one must begin before puberty. But I was hopelessly past this point. My fifteen etudes are thus the result of my own inability . . . That’s what I would like to achieve: the transformation of inadequacy into professionalism.”

Each piece addresses a particular technical pianistic problem. “Touches bloquées,” for example, is a study in finger independence that involves the pianist holding down particular keys without playing them, creating holes in the musical line akin to the children’s song “Bingo.”

More than just pieces for the practice room, the Études are also evocative character pieces with programmatic titles in the Romantic tradition of Schumann and Chopin. “Arc-en-ciel” (“Rainbow”) begins with a lyrical melody that builds in intensity as the piece develops, only to fade away into silence by the end. “L’escalier du diable (“Stairs of the Devil”) evokes demonic ascent with a fast, repeating gesture that slowly rises from the lowest register of the piano.

Ligeti includes precise timings and tempo indications in addition to Italian musical directions for his Études, perhaps to underscore the dual role they play as both technical exercises and recital works. In the liner notes to her recording, Biret writes that she gives primacy to the musical markings so that she can deliver “all the nuances” that Ligeti had written.

Biret’s interpretation of Ligeti’s Études, Books One and Two can be heard on, as can Fredrik Ullen’s BIS two-volume recording of the complete piano music.