Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s performance of eighteen Ligeti Etudes at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on May 12 – faster than ever, and negotiating without missing a beat the collapse of several loose pages from his music desk – was a landmark moment in Southbank history. It prompts me to recover the article I wrote some years ago for International Piano Magazine, in which Aimard gave an insight into how he approached these preposterously demanding works…
The piano Etudes of Georgy Ligeti have become a benchmark for virtuosity, so it’s salutary to be reminded of their origin. Writing in the liner notes for Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s Sony Cd series of his piano works in 1995, Ligeti made it clear that the initial spur was his own inadequate piano technique. And he drew a parallel with Cezanne’s trouble with perspective: the apples and pears in the painter’s still-lifes seemed perpetually on the point of rolling away, and his table-cloths had the rigidly of plaster models. ‘But what wonders Cezanne accomplished with his harmonies of colour, with his emotionally-charged geometry, with his curves, volumes, and weight-displacements! That’s what I would like to achieve: the transformation of inadequacy into professionalism.’
Ligeti went on to assert that his compositions were neither tonal nor atonal, neither avant-garde nor traditional, ‘and in no way post-modern, as the ironic theatricalising of the past is quite foreign to me. These pieces proceed from a very simple core idea, and lead from simplicity to great complexity: they behave like growing organisms.’
This month Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the Ruhr Piano Festival are launching a new online project under the title ‘Explore the Score’ which is dedicated to the propagation of this music: the aim is to coach pianists who want to perform it, and to bring it to a wider audience. Though as Aimard points out, Ligeti’s music is so popular these days that it can almost do the latter job itself, ‘but the style still needs to be learned’. And nobody on the planet is better placed than Aimard to teach it: the Hungarian composer dedicated two Etudes to him, encouraged him to premiere six more, and declared that in his view Aimard’s interpretations were definitive.
Speaking of his eight-year collaboration with Ligeti, Aimard describes his job as having been to ‘help new pieces come into existence’, and says his aim now is to pass on everything he has learned to the next generation of pianists. This new project is an exercise in oral communication: ‘It will contain everything you cannot find in the score.’
Aimard regards Ligeti’s interest in neuro-science and motor intelligence as being a key to understanding the virtuosity he demanded. Ligeti’s passion for ethnomusicology is another key: the composer was fascinated by the musics of other cultures, and when the musicologist Simha Arom introduced him to the rhythmic world of the Pygmies of the Central African Republic, things fell into place in his mind. For what he had been groping towards, they had already found: patterns of motion independent of European metric ones, plus what he called ‘the possibility of gleaning illusory melodic/rhythmic configurations – heard, but not played – from the combination of two or more real voices’. He was also excited by the possibilities in ‘the simultaneity of symmetry and asymmetry’. And it was to explore these ideas that Aimard came to share the stage at the Chatelet in Paris with a group of Pygmies from the Aka tribe, juxtaposing polyrhythmic Pygmy pieces with Ligeti Etudes: Aimard now looks back on this encounter as a life-changing experience.
Even he admits that the challenges of this music can seem to be on the border of feasibility: ‘Finding a technical answer to Ligeti’s new structurings is the player’s task. And with, for example, the sixth and twelfth polyrhythmic Etudes you have to use controls quite different from the traditional ones you use for the voices of a Bach fugue.’ Are these controls in the brain, or the fingers? ‘They are both in the brain and in the physical contact. You have to find a synthesis.’ How far is the brain consciously in control? ‘One dimension helps the other: the muscular and auditive memory helps the memory in the brain. And when we become conscious of that process, we can extend our control. It’s a matter of intelligent virtuosity.’
How does he memorise the music? ‘I always use the score, because that is how I have learned it.’ But when you play, are you watching the score, or your fingers? ‘It depends on the Etude – with some pieces I keep a very careful eye on the score.’ In some printed versions, he says, the number of staffs is reduced ‘but that doesn’t give you optically the right feeling of shape and space. Even with a Bach four-part fugue, it can help musically to see the music laid out on four staffs, not on the conventional two.’
The initial stage of Ligeti Project focuses on two pieces of music: Musica Ricercata No 1, and Etude 13, known as ‘L’escalier du diable’ – the Devil’s Staircase. The first of these pieces – strongly influenced by Bartok and Stravinsky – contains only two tones plus their octave transpositions, but it requires a lot more virtuosity than it might seem to do at first glance.
We see Aimard filmed from three angles, and we can control the way the score moves, with each the bar shaded blue as it is played; we can also break off to watch master-classes dealing with knotty points in the score: all the interactive tricks you could wish for are woven into this clever piece of pedagogy.
And Aimard’s commentaries, which start with an account of how this Etude was conceived as Ligeti found himself pedalling uphill during a sudden and violent storm, are highly illuminating. ‘The wish of Ligeti was to feel this immense effort, to feel the useless effort, the effort in vain. And he really wants the interpreter to share with the listener his own fight in trying to play it. Ligeti was extreme, his compositions are extreme, and we have to be extreme. In our loudness, in our commitment, and also in the distance, when there is a distance. For instance the two very soft bell-like chords in bars 33-34: he wanted to have them sounding like echoes of bells that don’t exist. And that invites us to find a sound that is almost beyond comprehension.’
The warp and weft of Ligeti’s rhythmical asymmetries is demonstrated by Aimard with brilliant clarity: ‘He wants to create a rhythmical anxiety. And at the end of this infernal process, he asks us to play at eight-f. This is not just to play twice or three times louder, as at the end of a Brahms or Rachmaninov concerto, it is an invitation to use a sound that will not be seen as beautiful in the traditional acoustic sense.’ A sound, he stresses, that seems distorted. ‘It is also an invitation to find a way for the interpreter to go beyond his own borders,’ in a collapse which should express the cataclysm at the end of this extraordinary work. ‘This piece is almost unbearable to play, and it should feel unbearable.’