Ligeti’s Magical Keyboard World: An Expert Tour

Pierre-Laurent Aimard performed solo piano works by György Ligeti and Beethoven at the University of Chicago’s
Logan Center for the Arts. (Eliot Mandel)
By Kyle MacMillan

CHICAGO — Few works become instant classics in the slow-moving world of classical music, but that is exactly what happened with György Ligeti’s 18 Études, which he composed in three books from 1985 through 2001. An étude is typically thought of as a short musical exercise to improve the skills of a player, but composers like Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, and, of course, Ligeti have also seen this compact form as a potent means of artistic expression.

No artist knows more about Ligeti and his highly original music than Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who performed a nearly sold-out recital March 6 under the auspices of the University of Chicago in the school’s Logan Center for the Arts. The recital was part of a five-state, seven-city American tour that included a stop at Carnegie Hall and concludes on March 13 at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.

The celebrated French pianist began to study the composer’s output in the early 1980s while a founding member of the Paris-based Ensemble Intercontemporain, initiating a tight-knit collaboration that continued until Ligeti’s death in 2006. Aimard had a particularly close connection to Ligeti’s Études. He gave the French premiere of the first book in 1987, and the composer chose him to premiere nearly all of the late works in the set, even dedicating No. 10 and 12 to the pianist. So, it was naturally disappointing when the program was changed before this concert, with Aimard choosing to perform five of the Études and not the whole set as had originally been announced.

Aimard played only five Ligeti études instead of all 18 as announced. (Eliot Mandel)

But it was hard to complain too much, because what took center stage instead was a complete performance of Ligeti’s Musica ricercata, one of his most significant early works from 1951-53. The 11-movement work’s title is related to the ricercar, a relatively loose term referring to a Renaissance and early Baroque instrumental form akin to a toccata or fantasia. Bach used the ricercar as a title for several of the movements in his Musical Offering. In this conception, Ligeti builds the first movement on just two pitches (A and D) and then adds a pitch in each successive movement until the 11th, which includes the full 12-note chromatic scale. Such an obviously systematic approach might seem as though it would lead to music that was rigorous, even dogmatic, but these works feel wonderfully arbitrary and free.

What is most striking about the Musica ricercata and the Études is Ligeti’s unique approach to solo keyboard writing; it simply cannot be confused with anyone else’s. At the end of the 11th movement of the former,  “Andante misurata e tranquillo (Omaggio a Girolamo Frescobaldi),” a complex fugue paying homage to the noted 16th-century Italian composer, the pianist’s hands are spread to the farthest ends of the keyboard. Such an expansive stance is an apt metaphor for these works, which push the limits of what is possible in such keyboard miniatures and test the pianist both technically and artistically.

Ligeti in 1984 (Dutch National Archives)

In the sometimes quirky, often unpredictable movements of the Ricercata (and much the same could be said of the Études), Ligeti is in many ways to classical music what Thelonious Monk is to jazz, especially Ligeti’s experiments with constantly shifting space and time. Here emptiness and stops are every bit as important as packed notes and forward momentum. These little musical worlds are filled with contradictions. They are simple and complex, playful and serious. There are patterns and then disruptions of patterns. Some are strictly geometric and ordered, while others are lighter and more theatrical. It’s easy to imagine, for example, the evocatively propulsive third movement, Allegro con spirito, as accompaniment to a silent-film romp. The fourth movement, “Tempo di valse” (Tempo of a Waltz), has a comic aspect, as the music speeds up, slows down and interrupts itself. The 10th, “Vivace Capriccioso,” is a lightning-fast movement that almost veers out of control. Sounding like the pianist is putting his hands on the wrong keys at times, it zooms to a climax that Ligeti wants played Wie verrückt (As if insane) before ending with a humorous coda. Aimard chose to perform the sections of Musica ricercata with little or no break between sections, so that the piece felt very much like a rambunctious, ever-changing whole.

To give listeners at least a taste of the Études, Aimard presented five of the miniatures from Books 1 and 2 beginning with No. 12, “Entrelacs” (Interlacings), with its intricate interplay of the left and right hands, as the title suggests. Also included in this group were No. 3, “Touches bloquées” (Keys Blocked), which includes a moment when the keys are depressed without making a sound, and No. 6, “Automne à Varsovie” (Autumn in Warsaw), the longest and one of the most engaging Études, with its off-center harmonies, devilish tempos, and thunderous attacks.

Aimard recorded most of the Études for Sony’s aborted Ligeti Edition.

Aimard seems instinctively at one with the composer’s unorthodox musical aesthetic, not surprising given his long history with the composer. Because of the repetition, geometric structures, and often complex layering, clarity and precision are essential; Aimard’s playing was defined by both qualities. The pianist paid attention not just to the distinctive spirit of each of the 11 movements of the Musica ricercata and the five Études, each with its own largely autonomous sensibility, but also the particular texture of individual motifs and even single bars. This music lurches, pounces, accelerates, and brakes, and Aimard delivered every effect with deft physicality and thoughtful care. The Logan Center’s 474-seat Performance Hall, with its intimate size and accommodating acoustics, provided an ideal setting to appreciate these works and take in Aimard’s every gesture and movement.

The pianist’s performance of these solo works was the fitting culmination of the University of Chicago Presents’ season-long Ligeti series, which began in October with an appearance by the Arditti Quartet. This ambitious undertaking was accompanied by a special 50-page program that included essays by University of Chicago faculty and a symposium, Dislocations: Reassessing Ligeti’s Many Worlds in the 21st Century, that ran March 5-8.

First page of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 29, Op. 106 “Hammerklavier”

For the second half of the program, Aimard returned to what should have been musical terra firma – Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major, Op. 106, Hammerklavier. But after everything audiences had experienced on the first half, it didn’t sound so familiar. Hearing this piece through the prism of Ligeti, the once-radical nature of Beethoven’s music rose firmly into view. This sense was only heightened by Aimard’s assertive approach to the sonata, which he seemed to carry over from the earlier pieces. His was a muscular, intense performance in which the Sturm und Drang of the music was very much in evidence. But the unquestioned highlight was Aimard’s time-stopping, one could even say transcendent, take on the slow third movement, subtly ebbing and flowing with its every emotional shift.

The musical journey from Beethoven to Ligeti is a long one, but Aimard seemed to suggest that the two aren’t that far apart after all. Hearing them together only reinforced the mastery of both and confirmed that this French keyboard virtuoso remains among the best of our time.

Kyle MacMillan served as the classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music, and Early Music America.