The studies of Chopin, Liszt and Debussy have acquired a rival. The term “modern classic” is overused, but Ligeti’s Études qualify as one of the few collections of piano music written in the late 20th century to shake up the existing repertoire.
Do not expect to hear them often, though. These studies are of jaw-dropping difficulty and even a glance at the score would be enough to make most pianists weak at the knees. How do you even read them? Or play them with only two hands?
There should be a warning on the cover, “Do not try this at home”. Danny Driver has spent years mastering them and his complete recording of the three books takes its place among the select group that prove even the unplayable is possible in the right hands.
The 18 studies may not be as immediately appealing as Chopin’s, but they cover a lot of ground. The first pair alone go from the onslaught of “Désordre” to hypnotic cascades of quavers in “Cordes à vide”. There is also much impressionist beauty to be had in some of the slower pieces, bringing Debussy to mind.
Driver draws the most out of this, finding elbow room to be expressive where some other players have their time cut out hitting the notes. His speeds are sometimes below what Ligeti expected, but he has character: playful in “Der Zauberlehrling” (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”), moving in “Automne à Varsovie”. His playing reminds us that Ligeti left not just keyboard finger-twisters, but poetry in music.
‘Ligeti: The 18 Études’ is released by Hyperion