Pianist Eric Huebner’s virtuosic release of Ligeti’s iconic etudes alongside his Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano underscores the composer’s restless nature and attraction to various sources of aesthetic inspiration. Throughout the 1970s—after fourteen years in exile—György Ligeti made a number of return trips to his native Hungary. He had hoped to rekindle a relationship with the musical community of his homeland and reestablish himself as a ‘Hungarian’ composer. By the end of the decade, though, these efforts fizzled out, coinciding with a prolonged bout of illness and a fallow creative period. The works on this disc—the Études pour Piano (Livres I-II) and the Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano (Hommage à Brahms)— followed this period of crisis in Ligeti’s life and marked a decisive stylistic shift in his output. This new style drew on, among other things, elements of neo-romanticism, alternate tunings and microtonality, curious flirtations with tonal harmony, Central European folk idioms, and a stunning diversity of non-Western traditions. The point was not his virtuosic ability to inhabit an array of contemporary and historical styles, but rather his inability to settle wholly in any one.
It could be said that Ligeti’s Horn Trio (1982) inaugurated this new trajectory both in its style and in its thematic inspirations. When the pianist, Eckart Besch, first approached Ligeti about composing a companion piece to the Brahms trio for violin, piano, and natural horn, the suggestion evidently sparked powerful associations. There are, for instance, well-documented personal associations for Ligeti between the sound of the natural horn and the alpenhorns he heard in the Carpathian Mountains as a child. In his Romanian Concerto of 1951, the natural horn solo of the third movement explicitly recalled these childhood memories. In the opening measures of Ligeti’s trio, the horn part bears an immediate resemblance to that earlier work. Furthermore, this horn melody unfolds over a skewed quotation, by the violin, of the ‘Lebewohl’ (“farewell”) horn call that opens Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Op. 81a.
Ligeti named Chopin, Schumann, Scarlatti, and Debussy as primary influences in composing his first two books of piano etudes (1985-1994). Ligeti was by no means a virtuoso pianist, but he wrote his piano etudes at the keyboard and aimed to preserve that traditional sense of the genre as virtuosic technical study. In a playful subversion of the romantic pianist channeling musical ideas with sublime facility through a machine, Ligeti inserts his body as a faulty mechanical intermediary. Two machines—body and piano—engage in dialogue, producing unpredictable effects on the passage from thought to expression.
Beyond obvious predecessors like Chopin and Debussy, the influences suffusing Ligeti’s piano etudes hail from innumerable disparate places. He explores interests in fractal geometry, chaos theory, and the machine-like cacophony of Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano works (especially evident in Désordre, Cordes à vide, and L’escalier du diable, for example). Moments of jazz harmony, à la Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans, percolate throughout the etudes and positively define the sound-worlds of Arc-en-ciel and En Suspens. Elements of Central European folk music surface frequently, too, as in the descending lamento motif that pervades Automne à Varsovie and the Bulgarian dance rhythms (aksak) of Fanfares.
Non-Western elements also abound. As Ligeti writes,“[t]he polyphonic ensemble playing of several musicians on the xylophone—in Uganda, the Central African Republic, Malawi and other places—as well as the playing of a single performer on a lamellophone (mbira, likembe, or sanza) in Zimbabwe, the Cameroon, and many other regions, led me to search for similar technical possibilities on the piano keys”. Galamb Borong, by contrast, evokes the sound of a gamelan orchestra. Its Hungarian title, which translates rather absurdly as “ Melancholic Pigeon,” was likewise chosen for its supposedly Javanese sound.
The existential plight of being stuck between states with no place to call home is an apt organizing metaphor for these works. Looking past the dominance of machines, patterns, and inhuman systems, though, the piano etudes do make a certain kind of space for human presence. For instance, Ligeti paid much attention to the physical experience of playing these works, claiming that the “well-formed piano work produces physical pleasure” in the way that it choreographs the body. Indeed, for all their pyrotechnic glitz, Ligeti’s etudes lie remarkably well in the hands, allowing for a surprising degree of expressive freedom. If a recurring theme here has been the cataclysm between imagined ideals and the failure of their realization, it nevertheless seems that something unforeseen is able to glow into life above the wreckage. We might say that this is music about finding moments of comfort for oneself in an inhospitable world: an increasingly virtuosic feat. These studies, in other words, think pianistically about displacement and refuge. For this reason, they remain not only contemporary, but also utterly timely.
Attacking the works of Gyorgy Ligeti’s later works when his life was in disarray, you can feel the fury the composer was feeling as Huebner pounds the keys into submission to make his point. With an ebb and flow that’ll keep you guessing as to what’s coming next, this isn’t pretty music for a Sunday afternoon but it isn’t a dissonant mess either. Finishing the set with his own compatible work, this is forward thinking stuff that makes you think as you try to take it all in.
– Chris Spector, Midwest Record, 8/25/20
Here is a new recording of György Ligeti’s complete piano Études as well as a performance of his Horn Trio by American pianist Eric Huebner. Since I already have these works in my collection played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard on Sony Classical, I of course made a comparison between the two.
Both performances do justice to the music, but the two pianists’ approaches are slightly different. Aimard imparts a bit more legato to his recordings whereas Huebner plays in a crisp, staccato style with no legato at all and, in fact, with no attempt to sustain any tones.
As a modern composer, Ligeti can of course withstand this sort of approach. He was a Hungarian, after all, and the Hungarian style of classical performance tends towards the objective rather than the subjective, but in a piece such as the fifth Étude, titled “Arc-en-ciel,” I felt that a little pedal wouldn’t have done any harm. It’s true that here, as in other such pieces, Huebner does play a bit more delicately than elsewhere, but the unrelentingly bright, crisp sound of his instrument provided only a little by way of contrast, although Huebner does indeed observe all of Ligeti’s dynamics markings which are extremely important to this music.
The Horn Trio is played well, particularly by violinist Resnick and Huebner. Our French horn player, Adam Unsworth, has a muffled tone, not as clear as that of the great Marie-Luise Neunecker on the Sony recording, but otherwise he handles his assignment well. I always got a laugh out of the fact that Ligeti subtitled this “Hommage à Brahms” since, aside from the specific combination of instruments, there is little correlation to the Brahms Horn Trio. Everything about this piece is entirely different, not least the eerie harmonies. The second movement is particularly sprightly in its weird atonal way. A good recording, then. If you don’t already have these works in your collection, it’s a good place to start, but I would also recommend that you explore the Sony Classical Ligeti: Masterpieces set.
– Lynn Bayley, The Art Music Lounge, August 28, 2020