Ah, the étude — finger exercises disguising themselves as piano pieces, or piano pieces incorporating finger exercises.
Students of the piano cannot avoid exercise books from Pischna, Hanon, Czerny or Bürgmuller, but should they progress far enough into their studies, they might tackle études from Chopin and Debussy.
And if they’re really good, they might try a hand at the études of Györgi Ligeti.
Ligeti’s exercises may be less études than instruments of torture. More likely, it’s a composer known for his sense of humor punking the hell out of his students.
These études are not only a bear to listen to, they’re a bear to perform.
For his major label debut on Nonesuch Records, Jeremy Denk pairs Ligeti’s études with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32, the last of the composer’s sonatas. The resulting disc is dryly titled Ligeti/Beethoven.
But it’s a head-scratching juxtaposition. On one end is a towering figure of classical music with a mastery for melody, and on the other, a composer with a challenging sense of harmony. That’s double-speak for “dissonant”, the bugaboo adjective of classical music audiences.
But Beethoven’s late works sometimes possess a prescience for the harmonic chaos that came to typify the Twentieth Century. Alfred Schnittke more than demonstrated that by quoting the Grosse Fuge in his String Quartet No. 3. The second movement of the Sonata No. 32, with portions that Denk himself describes as “proto-jazz”, don’t feel entirely rooted in the Eighteenth Century.
(And anyone who’s watched Looney Toons will not doubt picture a Halloween scene with Bugs Bunny when the main theme of the first movement appears.)
Somehow, the pairing works. At a point where the Ligeti études seem ready to collapse on themselves, Beethoven emerges from the haze to recalibrate the listener.
Denk’s performance is athletic. He stabs at the opening “Désordre” with an aggression that makes the piece snarl. “Fém”, which the Bad Plus arranged marvelously for jazz trio, solidly pulsates, while the cascading lines of “Vertige” make Denk sound superhuman.
Ligeti’s pieces can get pretty intense, but hearing Denk tackle them is not so different from watching a gymnast nab that perfect 10. It seems impossible that anyone can navigate through all the shifting meters and clashing lines until someone like Denk shows you he can.