Classical: Records of the Week
Writer and broadcaster Edward Seckerson is Chief Classical Music and Opera Critic for The Independent. He wrote and presented the long-running BBC Radio 3 series Stage & Screen, in which he interviewed many of the most prominent writers and stars of musical theatre. He appears regularly on BBC Radio 3 and 4. On television, he has commentated a number of times at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. He has published books on Mahler and the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and has been on Gramophone Magazine's review panel for many years. Edward presented the 2007 series of the Radio 4 music quiz Counterpoint. He has interviewed everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Liza Minelli; from Paul McCartney to Pavarotti: from Julie Andrews to Jessye Norman.
Friday 17 January 1997
The Prelude sets up a fateful toning, sonorous but solemn and with fully vented rage for the fiery middle section. In the songs, Gilels picks the leading melody from a crying chorus of counterpoint, grading dynamics as if each finger were working independently of its neighbours. Beyond a stern G minor Prelude, Op 23 No 5, he treats us to a quartet of Schumann rarities, the Four Pieces Op 32 with a "Gigue" that recalls the dancing Scherzo from the more familiar Overture, Scherzo and Finale.
Lastly, there's Brahms, the four Ballades, sullen narratives, aristocratically conveyed. Best of all is the Fourth, with its undulating accompaniment and unrelenting melancholy.
All 15 pieces were recorded during two concerts in December 1977; there's some applause and a rather close solo image, but the musical message is unhindered, the effect overwhelming.
Ligeti Etudes for Piano; Musica ricercata Pierre-Laurent Aimard Sony SK 62308 How does the composer who has everything square up to a hopelessly inadequate piano technique? By writing piano etudes. Cezanne had problems with perspective, but what wonders he accomplished "with his harmonies of colour, with his emotionally charged geometry, with his curves, volumes, and weight displacements!" So says Ligeti. And there is inspiration in the equation. He lays 10 fingers on the keyboard and imagines music. The golden age of pianism is fed back and forth across the ages, back and forth between idea and execution, and comes out sounding... well, like this. And it's the most emotionally centred musical abstraction in the world. Geometry with soul.
You too will allude to the source materials, you'll hear Scarlatti toughened up with the "barbarism" of Bartok and Prokofiev, you'll recall Debussy's harmonic elusiveness and textural awareness in the newest (there'll be more) and sparest of these studies - White on White (from Book 3), a simple homage of vast ambiguity. Cordes a vide and Arc-en-ciel suggest bleached Chopin, and in En suspens - a watery blue-note fantasy - and Entrelacs (more water) the long reach of jazz pianism takes us where it takes us.
These are fantastic pieces in every sense of the word. Desordre - the torrential opening gambit of Book 1 - is achieved by corrupting the underlying pulse, the "gridwork", with a minefield of renegade accents.
The pulsating Der Zauberlehrling is an anatomy of a trill, and in the diabolical collusion - L'escalier du diable and Coloana infinita - which sees off Book 2, Ligeti seems to add several octaves to each end of the keyboard. He and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, both. His achievement here is simply mind-bending.
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