The present becomes prologue to the past with Aimard’s extraordinary Ligeti-plus evening

November 09, 2023
By George Grella
Pierre-Laurent Aimard performed Etudes of Ligeti and others Tuesday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Marco Borggreve

Classical music is generally thought of as something that’s just old, and not only by the overall culture; the struggle to get administrators and artistic directors to support contemporary music has been going on for decades. It’s been easy to default to the idea that old means better, but some of the greatest works in the continuum of classical music have been made since World War II.

One of those is György Ligeti’s three books of Etudes, among the very finest works in the piano repertoire. Pianist Han Chen delivered an incredible performance of these in September, pairing the Etudes with contemporary responses. 

On Tuesday night, Pierre-Laurent Aimard performed his own version of this idea, mixing Ligeti’s piano music with, this time, older works. Presented by the New York Philharmonic for their Artist Spotlight series at David Geffen Hall—and part of their initiative to celebrate Ligeti’s centennial, which included Aimard playing the composer’s Piano Concerto last week—this was an extraordinary experience—beautiful, profoundly intelligent, and fun. It was the abstract ideal of a classical concert made real, showing the greatness of contemporary music and its relevance of the past.

Aimard is one of the great pianists of the last 40 years and probably the single finest Ligeti player there is, working closely with the composer for many years and performing and recording his body of work. He embraces Ligeti’s irreverence as fully as his seriousness—as the audience took their seats, the composer’s Poème symphonique for 100 mechanical metronomes was gradually winding down on stage. 

He mixed selected Etudes and the entirety of Ligeti’s early *Musica ricercata* with pieces from Beethoven, Chopin, and Debussy. This was truly a mix, a live playlist that alternated movements of Musica ricercata with selected Beethoven Bagatelles for the first half, then switched back and forth between Ligeti’s Etudes and selected ones from Chopin and Debussy after intermission. 

This was a set of dialogues between equals. Even one familiar with Musica ricercata was astonished to hear how it stood against the Bagatelles. Working from almost a naïve place, Ligeti built the piece out of the most basic ideas, repeating single notes and tiny phrases, moving them along the range of the keyboard, almost obsessively exploring how the piano works. The juxtaposition of registers, changes in dynamics, basic chords are all full of wit, gravity, and great drama.

This set the wit and mercurial moods of the Bagatelles—two from the Op. 33 set and eight from Op. 119—in stronger light. Beyond the intellectual demonstration was Aimard’s fabulous playing. Every moment of strength and delicacy was there, driving attacks and stabbing accents in the Musica ricercata were exciting, and his legato in the Bagatelles was like a fast-moving stream with sunlight dappling off it. That he played all of this with the greatest seeming ease meant his virtuosity was almost unnoticeable, nothing but the music came through.

This didn’t just set the two composers as part of the same profound exploration of the piano, but impressed one with Ligeti’s profound artistry. The Musica ricercata was the composer’s first piano piece, yet sections like the “Allegro molto capricioso” were full of ideas that he would later expand in the Etudes. 

One of the remarkable things about hearing all this music together was the insight it produced on the idea of pianism. On sheer compositional technique, there was a clear contrast in the first half between Ligeti’s quasi-constructivist approach and Beethoven; the latter was a tremendous pianist, and Aimard’s playing brought out the feeling that so much of the music was about how good it felt to have one’s hands on the keyboard, enjoying the physical possibilities.

This sensuality is essential to Chopin and Debussy, and is perhaps the greatest pleasure in hearing the music. Ligeti was not a pianist, and yet the amazing sensation of the second half was hearing this same pianistic thrill in his Etudes, pieces he imagined and could hear others play but never play himself. The fundamental sensation of hearing Aimard’s fingers glide through the notes, masses of sound coming together to create harmonies that were barely there before morphing into a new chord or phrase, the two hands in complex counterpoint, was emotionally and physically enthralling.

Aimard set two Chopin Etudes, Op. 25, nos. 2 and 8, against Ligeti, with the rest from Debussy. Those especially began to flow together as one extended piece of modern music, the two composers seeming to delight in showing different ideas to the other. As the end neared, Debussy’s Étude No, 7, “pour les degrés chromatiques” followed Ligeti’s “Cordes à vide,” the second one he composed, and it sounded, impossibly, like Debussy had learned a thing or two from Ligeti.

The finale was Ligeti’s Etudes No. 13, “L’escalier du diable,” a suitably fiendish set of laddered runs that seem to head toward an infernal place. Aimard’s playing was a thrill, and he held the final low A down, letting it naturally decay while releasing the sostenuto pedal even more slowly than the score indicates. The audience listened in a palpably stunned silence.

After four standing ovations, Aimard came out to play an encore. First he spoke movingly about Ligeti’s sense of humor and curiosity and generosity, pointing out that the composer introduced jazz and music from Central Africa to many of his colleagues. Then he played a piece Ligeti introduced to him, Ruth Crawford Seeger’s intense, brilliant Study in Mixed Accents, a modern masterpiece with ideas Ligeti used in the Etudes. It was physically and emotionally visceral and joyous and one felt the deep personal meaning to the pianist.

Then, Aimard came out again for one more encore, which he introduced by talking about the Dada and Fluxus ideas that were important to Ligeti in the 1960s. Then he played what he said was the New York premiere of Ligeti’s brief Three Bagatelles (for David Tudor). For the first one he played a single C-sharp bass note, for the second he put his left hand over his heart while touching the keyboard with his right, and in the final one he raised his right hand high, poised to smash out a chord. Then he brought it down, slowly and gently, brushing the keys before letting it drop off and hang by his side. It was hilarious, touching, lovely in the connection between pianist and composer, and perfect.

The New York Philharmonic, conductor Stéphane Denève, violinist Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, and organist Kent Tritle play Carlos Simon, Beethoven, and Saint-Saëns, November 9-12.

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