The Etudes for piano of György Ligeti together comprise one of the great sets of studies for the piano, joining those of Chopin, Liszt and, of course, Debussy in the pantheon. Although recordings and performances by Pierre-Laurent Aimard are a vital part of the recorded literature, Han Chen offers a more than viable alternative.
Here's Naxos’ very imaginatively filmed promo video fo the disc which gives an immediate sonic impression, too, of Chen's abilities:
Chen has his own take on this music. Take the very first Étude, “Désordre,” less overtly mechanistic than Aimard:
... or the second, “Cordes à vide,” where Chen finds a post-Debussy sensuality:
The jittery third (“Touches bloquées”) takes on a hyper-nervous quality here before the slightly distorted octaves. Here, perhaps, I prefer Aimard, Han is just a touch removed from the core of Ligeti:
The key to LIgeti's Etudes is, unbelievably, its simplicity. He sets up a technique, and runs with it, as in “Fanfares” - never-ending ascents against those chordal fanfares. And yet how exciting this becomes:
There is maximal contrast between “Fanfares” and the very next Etude, “Arc-en-ciel” (Rainbow). Chan finds real beauty here, in a study that in its sheer beauty of sonority recalls Debussy:
Again I find Aimard a little more convincing in the descending lines of “Automne à Varsovie” (Autimn in Warsaw):
It is Book 3 that follows on on the Naxos disc, with a stunningly hypnotic version of “White on White,” Ligeti’s version, in Chen's interpretation perhaps, of the Debussy Prélude “Des pas sur la neige” (perhaps let’s spoil ourselves: click here for Michelangeli for in the latter):
After a beautiful “Pour Irina,” back to Ligeti in mechanistic mode for “À bout de souffle” (Out of Breath). I just want to feel the hyper-virtuosity a little more than Chen allows in the latter- surely part of the point is feeling the pianist being stretched:
The final Etude of Book 3 is “Canon”, whereim Chen finds some real beauty as well as reveling in the busy textures before the final, quiet chordal section seems to suspend the music in the air. This is one of his finest performances available:
The two Capriccios are delightful. Both date from 1947 (as opposed to 1985 for Book 1 of the Etudes, 1988-94 for Book 2, and 1995-2001 for the final set). The first is kittenishly playful:
The second Capriccio is more jittery in nature, which makes it a perfect foil for the atmoospheric shimmerings of the first Etude from the seond book, “Galamb Borong” (the title is in Javanese):
The title of the second Étude of Book II, “Fém,” is the Hungarian word for metal. Ligeti uses the coda as a “reveal” of the underlying harmonies of the Etude, a rather nice touch:
Chen offers the best “Vertige” I have heard though - the music all but evaporates before restarting:
One of Ligeti’s most accessible studies is “Der Zauberlehling” - German for “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. Chen’s touch is superb here:
Again, it is in the quieter studies Chen is at his best - both in No. 11, “En suspens,” and, perhaps particularly, in No. 12, “Entrelacs”:
Unfortunately Chen is underwhelming in “L’escalier du diable (The Devil’s Staircase) - Aimard live has been simply astonishing in this, and his recording captures some of that excitiement. Perhaps the robustness of “Columna infinità” is not fully honoured under Chen’s fingers, either. The disc offers Etude 14a (Column without end) as something of an "encore" - perhaps that's why the second book comes at the end and not the third. And yet Richard Whitehouse’s booklet notes consider the books in numerical order, which is potentially confusing for some purchasers.
A pity the Aimard appears to not be currently available apart from as part of am expensive box. Danny Driver offers a fine alternative at a higher price on Hyperion.
Chen offers an intersting alternative to Aimard and Driver, at his best in the more lyrical pieces. The recording is very good.