Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti (1923-2006) came into (American) prominence through Stanley Kubrick’s films, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut. But he had been an active keyboard composer from 1942, when his musical syntax resembled that of his compatriot Bartok, as cross-fertilized by the pedagogies of Farkas, Kodaly, Kadosa, and Veress. Later, in Cologne, Ligeti absorbed influences from Stockhausen, Nancarrow, and Koenig, mainly the sound and textures of electronic music, which Ligeti imitated through conventional instrumentation. Always curious, Ligeti studied Rumanian folk music extensively; but he also pursued Lewis Carroll, mathematics, science, and architecture. The music of Apparitions (1959) gained Ligeti some notice for his insistence on what he called “micropolyphony” or the blurring (“blockage”) of harmonically distinct tones into a new mass, as did Lontano (1967); but his opera Le Grand Macabre (1978) struck a nerve in the public that remained a definitive moment in the theater of the metaphysically absurd.
Professor Erika Haase (b. 1935) assumes the mantle of Ligeti interpretation, performing the entire oeuvre of piano works in their chronological order on two distinct instruments, a Steinway and a Bechstein, over a period extending 1990-2003. The early pieces, such as the Five Pieces for Piano, Four Hands (1942-1950), enjoy the collaboration of Haase and Carmen Piazzini, a pupil of Wilhelm Kempff. The opening March and Polyphonic Etude each communicates a definite rhythmic sense, often syncopated by jagged accents. Three Wedding Dances clearly invoke Bartok in their modal angularity and feeling for peasant song. The Sonata (1950) is a pointillist-sounding piece of lively, Stravinskian energies, glittering and jazzy, with an Andante indebted to Ravel. Allegro could say “barbaro,” but it end so abruptly as to remain a mere hint of the other Magyar master.
The three pieces of 1947–Invention, Capriccio No. 1 and No. 2–begin where Schoenberg’s Op. 19 seems to end, though the rhythmic kernels achieve some extension. Jabbing, skittish, polyphonic and chromatic, the pieces alternate between staccati runs and brief flirtations with legato phrases. Between 1951-1953 Ligeti composed his Musica Ricercata, a series of eleven miniatures, each devoted to a musical challenge or problem: for instance, Schoenberg and Mahler had argued whether a full composition could be derived from a single note played in several octaves in varying timbres, not a far cry from Ravel’s Bolero. The first of Ricercata develops one note, the second a second interval, and so on. Experimenting with densities and textures, these etudes correspond to similar arrangements of sound written by Edgard Varese. Hard edged, the pieces can become quite haunted, as the Mesto: Parlando of No. 2, utilized in Eyes Wide Shut. Juxtaposed against the Mesto is the fleet Allegro con spirito, a piece that Duke Ellington or Hoagy Carmichael might have penned. Another quicksilver moment in No. 6. An equally driving etude in the upbeat No. 8. The No. 4 makes a quick allusion to Chopin’s “Minute” Waltz, cross fertilized by demented Ravel. The No. 5 marked Rubato. Lamentso has an affinity to Satie, with piercing ostinati and dark parlando motifs. Debussy might be the dedicatee for No. 7, with its running bass line and simple tenor voice sung by Ondine or a maid with flaxen hair. Bela Bartok enjoys a direct homage in No. 9, Ligeti’s compressed answer to Liszt’s Funerailles. The wicked Vivace: Capriccioso that ensues might be Copland, but the treble haze is too ripe. Finally, fugal homage to Frescobaldi, a de profundis of staid concentration and restraint.
A compositional hiatus of twenty years marks the period prior to the appearance of Continuum (1968) and the 1978 pieces, Passacaglia ungherese and Hungarian Rock, each for cembalo. Continuum is a wild ride: a kind of pointillist alarm bell, continuously prestissimo, so that Haase’s wrists must be made of rubber, to produce the illusion of unbroken, vibrating sound, almost organ-like in a huge, contradictory bass tone. Acoustically, the harpsichord is urged to a series of shrieks and yodels. Hungarian Passacaglia proceeds sedately if modally, the spirit of Couperin close by, even as the piece ends quasi-toccata. Hungarian Rock is a bravura sound-piece in modern ragtime, utilizing the harpsichord’s capacity to pluck out a tune over its own arpeggiations.
Monument from Three Pieces for 2 Pianos (1976) opens with a 5-bar rest, so you first think your disc player is awry; the piece proceeds as a layered sequencing of fortissimo chords and progressions, gradually varied metrically and achieving some jabbing fluidity, the treble staccati not far from Messaien‘s bird calls. The middle piece, Self-portrait, pays homage to Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Frederic Chopin, albeit ironically. Through applications and releases of the damper pedal, Ligeti urges forth “blocked notes” that create an eerie, imperfect synchronicity between the two pianos. We are close to Cowell’s The Banshee, but the aesthetic derives from a planned spontaneity, almost aleatory. The last section of the portrait clearly borrows from the strange conclusion of Chopin’s B-flat Minor Sonata, Op. 35. The last piece drips with arpeggios which become ever louder and faster; a crisis point ensues, and the piece breaks into tiered droplets, from which a quiet canon emerges.
It might be worth an academic’s time to compare Ligeti’s theories of “amalgamated counterpoint” to the “interpunct” of contemporary keyboardist Alexandre Tcherepnin. Both men expand contrapuntal harmony as an outgrowth of Schoenberg, but also adding eclectic blends of Eastern or post-John Cage acoustics to produce a truly “transcendental” etude. Three books of Ligeti Etudes are bequeathed us: 1-6 (1985); 7-14 (1988-1993); 15-18 (1995-2001). Alfred Brendel, in point of fact, has called the Haase interpretations more “Eastern” than those of fellow acolyte Pierre-Laurent Aimard. The etudes emphasize complex, mechanical rhythms, displaced major and minor triads, polymodal structures, and sound sources traceable to Bartok, Debussy, Nancarrow, Bill Evans, African folk music, and gamelan percussion. The utter independence of the hands is the rule: Haase constantly has to adjust accent, touch, timbre, and articulation. The movement traverses darkness and light, order and chaos, simplicity and Byzantine nightmares. After a grueling No. 1 called Disorder, we have Empty Strings, a series of oscillating fifths. Nervous and twittering, No. 3 uses “blocked chords” to parody the composer himself, with a quick reference to “Yes sir, that’s my baby.” Fanfares moves spatially while playing with some Gershwin riffs, like “I Got Rhythm,” here split up varieties of five. Rainbow creates an illusion of peace as 16th notes upper and lower don’t quite gel in this modal and disturbed piece, Ligeti’s “footsteps in the sky.” Haase wrote to me, calling the sixth etude, Autumn in Warsaw, “a drama of the ruin of the world.” Polyrhythmic falling fourths pulsate in a parody of Bach, then a cataclysmic drop worthy of darkest Liszt.
Book II opens with a gamelan piece belonging to an imaginary island, either Huxley’s or the one occupied by Maugham’s painter Strickland. Fem, or Metal, instantiates the composer’s sound world, asynchronic and disjointed, a zany syncope a drunken Gottschalk might admire. Chromatic runs mark Vertigo, each starting while the last not quite finishes, so a blurred, seamless layering ensues, movement and stasis combined. Reminiscent of Continuum, we have The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, no Mickey Mouse piece of bravura, staccati low and high notes like a demented xylophone. In Suspense is a study in quarter notes, the clusters of notes in the black and the white keys changing places. Soft pulsations for Interlacing, a series of tremolos and ostinati in polyrhythm. Poe’s “The Bells” might influence Devil’s Ladder, another obsessive, asymmetrical study that embraces crisis. Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi inspired Endless Column, a monotonously wild, compulsive string of eighth notes requiring Haase to cross her hands all through the diapason of the keyboard.
Ligeti decided to refine his etude technique for Book III by reviewing his canonic technique, a la Bach. White on White uses a slow introduction that reveals a bare, bleak landscape in A Minor, a bleached-out world akin to Eliot’s The Wasteland. For Irina utilizes a narrow range of six notes, stated in the opening and then through-composed. The music increases speed only to die off, like the ending of a movie by Godard or the young Polanski. Out of Breath smears the upper and lower chromatic liens along sound principles in Bach partitas and moments of Chopin, only off-the beat. Last, the strange Canon, the left hand following the right to octaves lower and two eighths behind.
Unnerving music, boldly conceived and audaciously rendered. Was Brendel alluding to Schumann’s celebration of Chopin when he wrote, “Hats off to Erika Haase. . .a new heroine”? We, too, pay homage to a conscientious artist who has found a composer and a cause to champion.