Critically acclaimed pianist Eric Huebner releases his performance of György Ligeti's famous Études alongside his iconic Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano with colleagues Yuki Numata Resnick and Adam Unsworth. Ligeti's attraction to stylistic influences from across the spectrum, including non-Western music cultures, while preserving a Hungarian core to his aesthetic, is apparent in Huebner's dynamic performances of these remarkable works.
Études pour piano: Livre I
|Eric Huebner, piano
|Cordes à vide
Cordes à vide
|Automne à Varsovie
Automne à Varsovie
Études pour piano: Livre II
|Eric Huebner, piano
|L'escalier du diable
L'escalier du diable
Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano
|Eric Huebner, piano, Yuki Numata Resnick, violin, Adam Unsworth, horn
|I. Andante con tenerezza
I. Andante con tenerezza
|II. Vivacissimo molto ritmico
II. Vivacissimo molto ritmico
|III. Alla marcia
III. Alla marcia
|IV. Lamento. Adagio
IV. Lamento. Adagio
Pianist Eric Huebner’s virtuosic release of Ligeti’s iconic etudes alongside his Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano underscores the composer’s restless nature and attraction to various sources of aesthetic inspiration. Throughout the 1970s—after fourteen years in exile—György Ligeti made a number of return trips to his native Hungary. He had hoped to rekindle a relationship with the musical community of his homeland and reestablish himself as a ‘Hungarian’ composer. By the end of the decade, though, these efforts fizzled out, coinciding with a prolonged bout of illness and a fallow creative period. The works on this disc—the Études pour Piano (Livres I-II) and the Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano (Hommage à Brahms)— followed this period of crisis in Ligeti’s life and marked a decisive stylistic shift in his output. This new style drew on, among other things, elements of neo-romanticism, alternate tunings and microtonality, curious flirtations with tonal harmony, Central European folk idioms, and a stunning diversity of non-Western traditions. The point was not his virtuosic ability to inhabit an array of contemporary and historical styles, but rather his inability to settle wholly in any one.
It could be said that Ligeti’s Horn Trio (1982) inaugurated this new trajectory both in its style and in its thematic inspirations. When the pianist, Eckart Besch, first approached Ligeti about composing a companion piece to the Brahms trio for violin, piano, and natural horn, the suggestion evidently sparked powerful associations. There are, for instance, well-documented personal associations for Ligeti between the sound of the natural horn and the alpenhorns he heard in the Carpathian Mountains as a child. In his Romanian Concerto of 1951, the natural horn solo of the third movement explicitly recalled these childhood memories. In the opening measures of Ligeti’s trio, the horn part bears an immediate resemblance to that earlier work. Furthermore, this horn melody unfolds over a skewed quotation, by the violin, of the ‘Lebewohl’ (“farewell”) horn call that opens Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Op. 81a.
Ligeti named Chopin, Schumann, Scarlatti, and Debussy as primary influences in composing his first two books of piano etudes (1985-1994). Ligeti was by no means a virtuoso pianist, but he wrote his piano etudes at the keyboard and aimed to preserve that traditional sense of the genre as virtuosic technical study. In a playful subversion of the romantic pianist channeling musical ideas with sublime facility through a machine, Ligeti inserts his body as a faulty mechanical intermediary. Two machines—body and piano—engage in dialogue, producing unpredictable effects on the passage from thought to expression.Read More
Beyond obvious predecessors like Chopin and Debussy, the influences suffusing Ligeti’s piano etudes hail from innumerable disparate places. He explores interests in fractal geometry, chaos theory, and the machine-like cacophony of Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano works (especially evident in Désordre, Cordes à vide, and L’escalier du diable, for example). Moments of jazz harmony, à la Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans, percolate throughout the etudes and positively define the sound-worlds of Arc-en-ciel and En Suspens. Elements of Central European folk music surface frequently, too, as in the descending lamento motif that pervades Automne à Varsovie and the Bulgarian dance rhythms (aksak) of Fanfares.
Non-Western elements also abound. As Ligeti writes,“[t]he polyphonic ensemble playing of several musicians on the xylophone—in Uganda, the Central African Republic, Malawi and other places—as well as the playing of a single performer on a lamellophone (mbira, likembe, or sanza) in Zimbabwe, the Cameroon, and many other regions, led me to search for similar technical possibilities on the piano keys”. Galamb Borong, by contrast, evokes the sound of a gamelan orchestra. Its Hungarian title, which translates rather absurdly as “ Melancholic Pigeon,” was likewise chosen for its supposedly Javanese sound.
The existential plight of being stuck between states with no place to call home is an apt organizing metaphor for these works. Looking past the dominance of machines, patterns, and inhuman systems, though, the piano etudes do make a certain kind of space for human presence. For instance, Ligeti paid much attention to the physical experience of playing these works, claiming that the “well-formed piano work produces physical pleasure” in the way that it choreographs the body. Indeed, for all their pyrotechnic glitz, Ligeti’s etudes lie remarkably well in the hands, allowing for a surprising degree of expressive freedom. If a recurring theme here has been the cataclysm between imagined ideals and the failure of their realization, it nevertheless seems that something unforeseen is able to glow into life above the wreckage. We might say that this is music about finding moments of comfort for oneself in an inhospitable world: an increasingly virtuosic feat. These studies, in other words, think pianistically about displacement and refuge. For this reason, they remain not only contemporary, but also utterly timely.
-- Nicholas Emmanuel (edited from liner notes for length)
Producer: Adam Abeshouse
Mastering: Adam Abeshouse
Recording Engineer: Adam Abeshouse
Technical Engineer: Christopher Jacobs
Editing: Christopher Jacobs, Eric Huebner
Piano tuning: Devin Zimmer (Études pour piano), Sharon Mok (Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano)
Recorded in Lippes Concert Hall, Slee Hall, University at Buffalo
February 26-27, 2019: Études pour piano (Livre I-II)
November 3, 2015: Horn Trio
New York Steinway D piano
Album photography: Vincent Lopez, vincentlopezphotography.com
Design: Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com
Eric Huebner is a versatile pianist known for his performances of 20th and 21st century music. Appointed pianist of the New York Philharmonic in 2012, he appears in over 60 orchestral and chamber music concerts annually with the orchestra. As a recitalist, he has performed throughout North America, the U.K., Germany, Japan and Brazil. From 2001 to 2012 he was a member of Antares, a mixed instrument quartet awarded first prize at the 2002 Concert Artists Guild International Competition. The quartet toured North America extensively and commissioned, recorded and performed many new and recent works for its combination. Huebner’s work with living composers is documented in recordings on Col Legno, Centaur, Bridge, Albany, Tzadik, Innova, and Mode Records labels. A critically acclaimed 2020 New Focus recording features Ligeti’s Piano Études (Books I & II) and Horn Trio. His debut 2015 New Focus solo release, features works by Schumann, Carter and Stravinsky. Huebner is currently Professor of Music at State University of New York at Buffalo, where he has served on the faculty since 2009, and is an adjunct collaborative piano faculty member of The Juilliard School.
Yuki Numata Resnick is a violinist and educator based in Buffalo, New York. She is co-founder and Executive Director of Buffalo String Works, an El Sistema-inspired music program serving refugee and immigrant families on the west side of Buffalo. Her playing can be heard on a range of recordings from labels such as Deutsche Grammophon, edition rz, 4AD and Warp. Groups she has played with range from indie bands Beirut and Blonde Redhead to new music specialists ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble) and Alarm Will Sound. She has also performed as soloist with the Knoxville Symphony, Tanglewood Orchestra and Wordless Music Orchestra in venues ranging from the Sydney Opera House to Big Ears Festival. Born in Vancouver, Numata Resnick holds degrees from the Eastman School of Music and the University of Michigan. Her mentors include Zvi Zeitlin and Andrew Jennings.
Adam Unsworth is professor of horn at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Prior to his appointment in Ann Arbor, Adam was a member of The Philadelphia Orchestra (1998-2007) and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (1995- 1998). He has toured Asia and Europe with the San Francisco Symphony, is a frequent guest with the Detroit Symphony, and is Principal Horn of the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra. Adam is a member of two NYC based jazz ensembles, the Gil Evans Project led by Ryan Truesdell and Miho Hazama's M-Unit Band and has appeared as recitalist and clinician at universities throughout the United States. Unsworth received his formal training at Northwestern University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
For American piano marvel Eric Huebner, myriad talents have ignited a multi-faceted career of unwavering performance prowess, equal in measure as soloist, chamber player and orchestral pianist. Huebner remains one of the most active keyboardists of his generation and if you don’t already know his work, you really should.
A latest release featuring music by György Ligeti offers a homecoming of a kind. Fiendishly demanding contemporary repertoire has always been Huebner’s specialty but at the heart of his musical muse is a longstanding association with Ligeti. Huebner believes the Études to represent “an entirely new musical language… fusing together disparate elements.” Ligeti came to challenge himself – his own compositional craft – later in life when he penned these works.
Remarkably at home in these scores, Huebner puts his dazzling arsenal of abilities on full display, sculpting timescales and wielding rhythmic idiosyncrasies all with a veteran expertise and panache. His is a deft touch, keenly born of an exceptional musical ear and fine sense for textural expression (arguably a prerequisite in the successful interpretation of any piece by Ligeti). Rising to the challenges, Huebner writes of “laying bare the music’s intricacies and keeping pace with its extreme technical demands while expressing its joy, poignancy and, at times, melancholy.”
Ligeti’s horn trio reveals even more of the composer’s unusual universe. It is a cosmos that glimmers benevolently in the care of dedicated artists like Huebner, Yuki Numata Resnick and Adam Unsworth.
— Adam Sherkin, 11.02.2020
Desordre is the title given to pianist Eric Huebner's album of Ligeti works (New Focus Recordings FCR 269). So then, "disorder." It's all about several multi-part works that mark Ligeti's early '80s change in stylistic focus. The liner notes to the current album describe how Ligeti had tried to return to Hungary from exile and establish himself as a composer rooted in Hungarian identity.
When that did not take he changed his aims decidedly with the 1982 "Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano," which went in a sort of deliberate multi-directionality that included a re-thinking of Romanticism to suit Ligeti's intentional diffuseness, suggested at first blush with the 19th century poet Eichendorff and the sounding of a natural horn from a mysterious fairytale of forest and storybook expression. It related to Ligeti's experience of hearing the alpenhorn in the mountains of his childhood. It captured a feeling of homesickness, suggest the liners, more so than one of national pride or feeling for the homeland, instead a feeling more of displacement, perhaps.
The chronologically following two books of "Etudes Pour Piano" in turn were inspired by the piano works of Chopin, Scarlatti, Schumann and Debussy. It was from the pianistic and virtuoso qualities of their concepts of playing that Ligeti found new inspiration, something that these magnificent Etudes reformulate in their own very original way.
And so we have in this program very poetic and pristinely clear performances of some extraordinarily complex and widely influenced works. The liners mention in addition to what I've brought up above the additional influences of Eastern European folk, plus Jazz harmonic and piano stylistic aspects from Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk. Finally we feel the weight of sensory-motor mechanics as a nexus of piano and pianist with compositional interventions that heighten drama and create a marvelous sense of motility that has its own original kind of virtuosity and still sounds completely Modern in the capital /M/ way.
Pianist Eric Huebner and his associates for the trio--Yuki Numata Resnick on violin and Adam Unsworth on horn--all furnish the realization of this extraordinary music with a sure sense of meaningful phrasing, of a gestalt wholeness that makes perfect sense of the totality of expression.
— Grego Applegate Edwards, 9.09.2020
MY NEW ALBUM DÉSORDRE (NEW FOCUS RECORDINGS: FCR 269) FEATURES MUSIC BY THE HUNGARIAN COMPOSER GYÖRGY LIGETI AND INCLUDES THE FIRST TWO BOOKS OF HIS PIANO ÉTUDES ALONG WITH HIS HORN TRIO. THE RECORDING COMES OVER TWENTY YEARS AFTER I FIRST BECAME FAMILIAR WITH HIS PIANO MUSIC.
While still a high school student, I had learned to admire György Ligeti's music from afar. I had seen Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey a few times growing up and knew the famous story of Kubrick jettisoning the score composed for the film and replacing it with selections from Strauss and Ligeti. Surely almost anyone who’s seen the film has been stunned by the breathtaking austerity and dark intensity heard in the excerpts from Ligeti’s Requiem, Lux Aeterna, and Atmosphéres. During the summer of 1997, between my sophomore and junior years at Juilliard, I was lucky enough to have several master classes with the famed French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard at the Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music. When I returned home, I made a point of acquiring Aimard's recording of the first two books of Ligeti's études which had come out on Sony Classical earlier that year. Again, I was stunned. The music was hard to believe, especially the first etude, Désordre. How had Ligeti come up with that? How was Aimard even playing it? My roommate at the time, the composer Mason Bates, was as taken with the music as I was. We spent hours playing the recording on our living room stereo in Inwood, on the northern tip of Manhattan – where space and loud music are plentiful, trying to figure them out. Finally, I thought, I have to try and learn one of the études so why not make it the first one, Désordre?
MY FIRST EXPERIENCE WITH THE ÉTUDES
I remember visiting Patelson's Music House on West 56th street in Manhattan (may it rest in peace) and purchasing book one of the études. It turned out to be a published photocopy of the manuscript. How was I going to learn the music from this?! Ligeti's handwriting is mostly legible but small and often somewhat vertically misaligned – not ideal for reading such complex music. Nonetheless, throughout that fall and winter, I picked away at the first étude, playing it on my senior recital the following February. The learning process was painful. I would describe it as a combination of the most burdensome aspects of mastering a complex contrapuntal keyboard work like a Bach fugue combined with, say, needing the technical fluency required to survive a piece like Liszt's Feux Follets concert étude. Even now, all these years later, while certain aspects of playing Désordre or Autumne à Varsovie are more comfortable, every performance still exists on that very thin edge between survival and near total wipeout!
After this initial experience with the études, I wasn't especially eager to learn more (or even if I was, in truth I didn't). My two next experiences with Ligeti's music involved performances of the Chamber Concerto with Ensemble Sospeso in New York and coachings with the great horn player William Purvis at Juilliard on several movements from the Horn Trio. The second movement of the horn trio features music and an ostinato 3+2+3 pattern in the piano that Ligeti would use again in his fourth etude, Fanfares. The ostinato becomes an almost menacing force in the trio as other melodic lines and patterns played by the horn, violin, and second hand of the piano are set against it. Purvis had vast experience with the piece and seemed to know rather precisely what we would have to do in order to perform it successfully.
LIGETI’S PIANO CONCERTO AND AN OPPORTUNITY TO FINISH LEARNING THE ÉTUDES
In 2006, I had my next major run-in with Ligeti's piano music. The conductor David Robertson asked me to learn and perform Ligeti's piano concerto as part of his Perspectives Series at Carnegie Hall. The opening of the first movement of the concerto resembles Désordre in its accented octaves played by all white notes in the right hand and all black notes in the left. The concerto’s third movement has some notable similarities to the sixth étude, Autumne à Varsovie, in its overlapping descending melodic lines. One of the better known études from the set, a descending melodic lament is set against a 16th note broken octave ostinato. There's a sense of slow motion falling in the piece but also a richness in harmonic effect. It presents the pianist with another major test of endurance as patterns pile up several times throughout, culminating in rapid fire accents.
A good excuse to finally perform all the études came in the fall of 2016 with an invitation, again from Maestro Robertson, to perform the complete set at the Pulitzer Gallery in St. Louis on a series produced by the St. Louis Symphony. Something must have happened, because they called me in September for a concert in early November. I had, in the intervening years, performed book one and the four études that comprise book three, which are among the last pieces Ligeti wrote. So, I dedicated myself to the urgent task of chiselling away at the études in book two that I'd never played: Fém, Vertige, Der Zauberlehrling, Entrelacs and Columna infinita– a work which has the power to literally freeze ones arms. Stylistic influences among the études are rather easy to identify: Javanese gamelan in Galamb Borong, Bulgarian dance rhythm (aksak) in Fém, and American minimalism in Der Zauberlehrling. However, as my former student Nicholas Emmanuel writes in his brilliant note to this recording, “One could easily plunge into an obsessive documentation of stylistic influences, which are so rich as to be virtually indigestible, but such an endeavor misses the forest for the trees.” He goes on to point out “Ligeti, like Stravinsky, made the difficult notion of ‘home’ a central concern in his music.”
THE HORN TRIO
In the 1970s, Ligeti made repeated trips back to his native Hungary, as Emmanuel writes, to “rekindle a relationship with the musical community of his homeland and reestablish himself as a ‘Hungarian’ composer.” This effort was ultimately abandoned, and the four movement Horn Trio, completed in 1982, was written after a period of four years when Ligeti did not compose a single work. It seems evident that the horn trio represents for Ligeti a significant first step in forging a new musical language that would sustain him through the remaining years of his life.
In addition to the previously mentioned connection between Fanfares and the horn trio’s second movement, one hears echoes of some of the études from book two (composed in the late 1980s and 90s) in the trio’s latter movements. The fractured march rhythm that opens the trio’s Alla Marcia third movement would find a dance-like expression years later in Fém. There is in the crashing climax of the trio’s final Lamento that resembles the middle section of L’escalier du diable where Ligeti abandons for a moment his intervallic games to unleash a wildes Glockengeläute (wild ringing of bells).
In 2012, a colleague at the University at Buffalo, the violinist Yuki Numata Resnick, suggested we perform the trio on a Slee Sinfonietta concert – the faculty chamber ensemble at the university. We were joined by Adam Unsworth, a mutual friend and frequent guest at the university, and in 2013 recorded the work thereby inaugurating the process of producing this CD. I am indeed very grateful for the support and encouragement I’ve received along the way and the opportunities I’ve been given to perform this music over the years. Without these opportunities this recording would not have been possible. The goal was always to rise to Ligeti’s challenge: laying bare the music's intricacies and keeping pace with its extreme technical demands while expressing its joy, poignancy and, at times, melancholy.
I hope you enjoy it.
— Eric Huebner, 9.15.2020
These works from Ligeti’s late period make an attractive coupling, especially in performances as good as these. The great Hungarian master took a break from composing after his two harpsichord works from 1978 until 1982 when he produced his Horn Trio. This chamber piece took his audience by surprise with its more listener-friendly style and thematic inspiration. It ushered in more than twenty years of creativity where Ligeti composed some of his greatest works, including the concertos for piano, violin, and horn, the song cycle Síppal, Doppel, Nádihegedűval, and three books of piano Études.
The Études, in particular, have become a standard part of the twentieth-century piano repertoire and are often considered the most significant set of such works after Debussy and perhaps even Chopin. Many pianists select only a few to perform or record, but there are at least three sets on disc that include all three books. These are by Fredrik Ullén, whose discs contain the complete Ligeti piano music (BIS), Thomas Hell (Wergo), and Kei Takumi (Sheva Collection). Others prefer only the first two books, including Idil Biret (Naxos) and Eric Huebner here. It is worth noting that in Sony’s Ligeti Edition Pierre Laurent Aimard recorded Books 1 and 2 along with the first Étude from Book 3 because that was the last one Ligeti had composed when Aimard recorded them. He later added the remaining three along with new performances of three of the earlier Études on a disc titled “African Rhythms” that also contains music by Steve Reich and recordings of Aka Pygmies. Aimard’s accounts have remained the benchmarks for me as for many others and are the ones I am using to compare these new performances by Eric Huebner. Huebner is Associate Professor of Music at the University at Buffalo (SUNY) and also on the piano faculty of the Juilliard School in New York. In 2012 he was appointed pianist of the New York Philharmonic, where he regularly collaborates with Philharmonic musicians in performances of chamber music.
To generalize the differences of interpretation, Aimard is the more nuanced of the two pianists while Huebner brings a refreshing clarity to the music. Both are technically impeccable. Huebner seems to focus on the rhythms as he emphasizes them in the first Étude, Désordre (Disorder) and the third one, Touches bloquées (Blocked keys). In the latter he plays notes staccato with no use of the sustain pedal, while Aimard brings out the mystery with judicious use of the pedal. It would be an exaggeration, though, to say that Huebner eschews the sustain pedal. One is more aware of this resonance in the second Étude, Cordes à vide (Open strings), with Huebner than with Aimard. Overall, the two pianists’ tempos are quite similar and the timings often differ by only a few seconds. However, in En Suspens (In Suspense), the eleventh Étude, Huebner is rather slower and melancholic and not as “spooky” as Aimard. The opposite is true in Arc-en-ciel (Rainbow), the fifth Étude, timing at 3:52 for Aimard and 3:25 for Huebner. Both project the clanging bell sounds, but Aimard is if anything more haunting, even majestic.
There is so much variety and colour in the Études that it takes several auditions to absorb it all. The influence of jazz and of Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano music is obvious, but so also are the dance rhythms of Central European folk music. In Étude No. 6, Automne à Varsovie (Autumn in Warsaw), the folk influence is pervasive in the descending lament motif that Ligeti employed in several of his later compositions, including the Horn Trio. Both pianists have the measure of the music here and their timings are identical (4:27). Bulgarian dance rhythms and the influence of Bartók characterize Fanfares (Étude No. 4), where the ostinato figure borrowed from the second movement of the Horn Trio underpins the fluid melody. Aimard is outstanding here, but Huebner is nearly as fine even if one is not as aware of the running accompaniment. Likewise, his loud chords later in the music do not have quite the impact of Aimard’s.
I also prefer Aimard in the final two Études, (The Devil’s Staircase) and Coloana infinită (The Infinite Column). In L’escalier du diable he really drives the jazzy theme with terrific dynamics, building from the very quiet to loud and crashing, until he reaches the top of the keyboard. Huebner is also fine, if not quite as memorable. Still he allows one to hear everything clearly with greater detachment in the fast runs. He is just a bit more cautious, less jazzy and riotous than Aimard. Their timings are quite close with Aimard taking 5:16 and Huebner 5:18 for the piece. Aimard is really forceful in Coloana infinită, beginning the piece in a blur. It sounds like he is holding the sustain pedal throughout. Huebner is not nearly as powerful and somewhat deliberate and careful. On the whole, though, the newcomer has much to offer in these Études, the first book of which earned Ligeti the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in 1986. What makes this disc particularly attractive is having these pieces coupled with the glorious Horn Trio.
The Horn Trio carries the designation ‘Hommage à Brahms’, but the only thing in common with Brahms’s popular work is that it is also in four movements. Ligeti was commissioned to compose the trio as a companion piece to the Brahms Horn Trio, thus the designation. In fact Ligeti was more influenced by Beethoven and even references him with a distorted quotation of the opening of the Op. 81 Piano Sonata ‘Les Adieux’, for the first three notes of the Horn Trio.
Ligeti had developed the habit in the late 1970s of playing piano in chamber music of the Classical and Romantic periods with students in his apartment and giving lectures on music of those earlier times. This likely had a substantial influence on the direction his own compositions would take, following all the avant-garde works of the preceding years of his career. The Horn Trio ushered in this final compositional period.
Violinist Saschko Gawriloff, hornist Hermann Baumann, and pianist Eckart Besch (who commissioned Ligeti) premiered the Horn Trio and recorded it for Wergo, presumably an authoritative account which I have not heard. Nonetheless, the recording that has served as my reference version is the one by Gawriloff, Marie-Luise Neunecker, and Aimard included in Sony’s Ligeti Edition. That performance would take some beating and I do not expect to ever hear it played better. That said, this new account by violinist Yuki Numata Resnick, hornist Adam Unsworth, and pianist Eric Huebner is also excellent. There is a fine balance among the three instruments and the sound has great presence. All three musicians really get inside the music. There is little to choose between these two performances in the first movement. However, Gawriloff and company are more playful in the second movement, Vivacissimo molto ritmico, with its violin harmonics and virtuosic horn part. At the same time, the new account is surely exciting and even faster than the earlier one, leaving the listener breathless. The sound emphasizes the bass end of the spectrum. The musicians on Sony characterize the jerky march of the third movement perfectly, while Numata Resnick and company, while still very fine, are rather less spontaneous. The quiet section in this A-B-A structure could have had more contrast with the march, as is demonstrated on the Sony recording. The final movement is one of Ligeti’s famous laments and is marked Lamento. Adagio. Both ensembles underscore the essential sadness of this music extremely well and it would be difficult to choose between them. Overall timings, which admittedly do not tell the whole story, are quite close in these two accounts. I also compared them with another very good one by Rolf Schulte, William Purvis, and Alan Feinberg (Bridge) that is coupled with Brahms’s Horn Trio. There the tempos vary more, especially the last movement where the musicians take 9:25 vs. 7:44 (Sony) and 6:59 (New Focus) and lose tension at times. All three accounts capture the essence of this magnificent work, and the coupling on Bridge is appropriate if less common than the other two. Still, if the Sony account takes pride of place, Numata Resnick, Unsworth, and Huebner are not far behind.
The physical product is attractive and contains informative notes by Nicholas Emmanuel, a PhD candidate in Historical Musicology at the University at Buffalo and recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. There is one error in the listing of the Études that should have been corrected: Coloana infinită is given as Columna, which is understandable since it means “column.” As a whole, though, this new recording does Ligeti proud.
— Leslie Wright, 11.05.2020
Here is a new recording of György Ligeti’s complete piano Études as well as a performance of his Horn Trio by American pianist Eric Huebner. Since I already have these works in my collection played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard on Sony Classical, I of course made a comparison between the two.
Both performances do justice to the music, but the two pianists’ approaches are slightly different. Aimard imparts a bit more legato to his recordings whereas Huebner plays in a crisp, staccato style with no legato at all and, in fact, with no attempt to sustain any tones.
As a modern composer, Ligeti can of course withstand this sort of approach. He was a Hungarian, after all, and the Hungarian style of classical performance tends towards the objective rather than the subjective, but in a piece such as the fifth Étude, titled “Arc-en-ciel,” I felt that a little pedal wouldn’t have done any harm. It’s true that here, as in other such pieces, Huebner does play a bit more delicately than elsewhere, but the unrelentingly bright, crisp sound of his instrument provided only a little by way of contrast, although Huebner does indeed observe all of Ligeti’s dynamics markings which are extremely important to this music.
The Horn Trio is played well, particularly by violinist Resnick and Huebner. Our French horn player, Adam Unsworth, has a muffled tone, not as clear as that of the great Marie-Luise Neunecker on the Sony recording, but otherwise he handles his assignment well. I always got a laugh out of the fact that Ligeti subtitled this “Hommage à Brahms” since, aside from the specific combination of instruments, there is little correlation to the Brahms Horn Trio. Everything about this piece is entirely different, not least the eerie harmonies. The second movement is particularly sprightly in its weird atonal way. A good recording, then. If you don’t already have these works in your collection, it’s a good place to start, but I would also recommend that you explore the Sony Classical Ligeti: Masterpieces set.
— Lynn Bayley, 8.28.2020
Attacking the works of Gyorgy Ligeti’s later works when his life was in disarray, you can feel the fury the composer was feeling as Huebner pounds the keys into submission to make his point. With an ebb and flow that’ll keep you guessing as to what’s coming next, this isn’t pretty music for a Sunday afternoon but it isn’t a dissonant mess either. Finishing the set with his own compatible work, this is forward thinking stuff that makes you think as you try to take it all in.
— Chris Spector, 8.25.2020
These transcendental etudes (1985-94) outdo his compatriot Liszt’s in modern terms. The 14 studies blow the mind and fingers to the fullest possible extent, but are thrilling to listen to individually or as a sets (two books). They are filled with dizzying polyrhythms and touches of jazz, breathtaking scales, folk-like fragments, and sumptuous harmonies. Mr. Huebner shows impeccable technique and musicality. The Horn Trio (1982), inspired by the Brahms, continues the hair-raising piano writing of the etudes and adds challenging parts for the violin and horn, especially the latter, which can become trying in Mr. Unsworth’s grappling. The final `Lament’ brings the piece to a mournful close. There are now a number of recordings of the etudes, so check couplings.
— Allen Gimbel, 1.13.2021
This album of Ligeti’s Études pour Piano, named Désordre after the opening number, is a collegiate project from the University at Buffalo. Pianist Eric Huebner is a new music specialist. He is also pianist of the New York Philharmonic as well as associate professor of music at the university. The recording was made there, at the Lippes Concert Hall, and supported by the Music Department. Huebner has previously appeared as ensemble pianist of many new music recordings, and this seems to be his third solo album, after a program of music by Daniel Rothman on Albany (967) and a recital of Schumann, Stravinsky, and Carter, like this one on New Focus (159).
Ligeti’s Études are now well established in the repertoire. The First Book was completed in 1985 and was soon recorded on Wergo by Volker Banfield (60134). After the Second Book was completed, in 1994, the first recording of the two together was made by Fredrik Ullén on BIS (783). Around that time, Ligeti was in collaboration with Sony on its György Ligeti Edition. This aimed to present all of Ligeti’s music in definitive, composer-approved interpretations. The Piano Études were recorded by Pierre-Laurent Aimard (62308), a recording that has easily retained its definitive status, despite stiff competition in more recent years from pianists as venerable as İdil Biret (Naxos 8.555777) and Jeremy Denk (Nonsuch 530562).
The music demonstrates Ligeti’s fascination in the 1980s and 1990s with chaos and order, and with the then-fashionable mathematical theories that presented the concepts as two sides of the same coin. So, in the Études, the two hands are often running at different tempos, or in different modes, creating complex cross-rhythms in which the ear picks up traces of a higher order. The trick for a pianist is to maintain that ambiguity, to present the interacting rhythmic hierarchies as part of a bigger picture in which rigid musical order is both an essential and a compromised ingredient.
Eric Huebner is particularly good at bringing out the details of this music. For instance, in the first Étude, each hand plays a theme in octaves accompanied by running eighth notes between. The right hand plays white notes and the left hand black notes, and the theme and accompaniment textures in the two hands gradually move out of synch. Huebner gives us immaculate clarity in those two-part textures, maintaining the structural hierarchy within each of the hands, and setting off the interaction between them like a well-oiled, but always percussive, mechanism. The result is more order than chaos, and so the effect can feel corporal and earthbound. Aimard smoothes the eighth-note accompaniment into a flowing, even texture, and the result is more nebulous. The sound recording here, by Adam Abeshouse, also adds to this sense of clarity and order. The piano is recorded up-close, with a welcome sense of immediacy, but it lacks weight in the bass register. The result is greater focus, but less drama. All round, it is a more mathematical approach, which is reasonable, given the mathematical inspiration of most of this music. It works best in the fast movements—which is most of them. The slower Études need more atmosphere. Ligeti described the fifth Étude, “Arc-en-ciel,” as a jazz piece, but you wouldn’t know it from Huebner’s staid account. The slow number in Book 2, “En Suspens,” is more successful, as this time Ligeti creates the placid mood from judicious application of the cross-rhythms at which Huebner always excels.
The program is a curious mix. Ligeti wrote four numbers for a projected Third Book of Études, but these rarely get included in recordings, and do not appear here. In fact, only one of those four late Études is fast, so Huebner is probably right to avoid them. There is also enough early music for solo piano to complete a program, as both Ullén and Aimard did, though this is so far from the Études stylistically that it is not an obvious coupling. Instead, we get the Horn Trio, a much more stylistically aligned work, written just before the First Book of Études, in 1982. Huebner is joined here by violinist Yuki Numata Resnick and hornist Adam Unsworth, both of whom are clearly on the pianist’s wavelength in terms of clarity and precision. Resnick plays with little vibrato, and her penetrating tone in the upper register cleanly delineates the textures, which are otherwise often in a veiled alto register in both the piano and the horn. Abeshouse again mikes the instruments closely, and the sound of the horn can be boomy, especially in the lower register. But the pay-off, again, is exceptional clarity, in a reading where detail and precision are clearly of the highest importance to the musicians.
Ligeti’s music of the 1980s and 1990s can be heard as transitionary, from the high Modernism of his earlier work, to a late style more influenced Ligeti’s Hungarian roots, and especially by Bartók. The liner essay, by Nicholas Emmanuel, a graduate student at Buffalo, highlights those Hungarian connections and provides valuable context for all of this music, a context that is only now coming into clear perspective, 15 years after the composer’s death. But the performers take the opposite approach, highlighting the Modernism and mathematical rigor of the music. The results sometimes lack atmosphere, but the performances are always engaging, thanks to Huebner’s skill in playing out Ligeti’s complex rhythmic games.
— Gavin Dixon, 1.26.2021