Ground – (and knuckle – ?) breaking Debussy and Ligeti

Wellington Chamber Music presents:


György LIGETI – Etudes for solo piano Bks 1-3 (complete)

Claude DEBUSSY – Etudes for solo piano Bks 1-2 (complete)

Xiang Zhou (Ligeti) and Jian Liu (Debussy) – piano

Ilott Theatre, Town Hall, Wellington

Sunday May 5th 2013

Time was when many people would look at the kind of fare offered by a concert such as this and suddenly discover all kinds of other things that they simply HAD to get done instead, such as mowing the lawns. Although the Ilott Theatre wasn’t packed to the extent that it was for Michael Houstoun’s recent Beethoven concerts, I thought the attendance was a “good average” for what seemed, on paper a fairly “studied”, and perhaps slightly daunting affair.

Thirty or so years ago most people’s consciousness of the name of Ligeti wouldn’t have gone past encountering the wonderful music of his used in the film 2001- A Space Odyssey;  and one might imagine little more of Debussy’s music than things like the Children’s Corner, Suite Bergamasque,  and random selections from the composer’s books of Preludes and sets of Images being given here in recitals.

Now, thanks in part to local musicians such as the New Zealand String Quartet fearlessly tackling works of the order of difficulty of Ligeti’s First String Quartet, the composer’s music has begun to shape something of a local performance profile – and though Debussy’s Etudes would, for most people, inhabit the more esoteric realms of his output, complete performances of other works such as the two books of Preludes for solo piano have been given within these shores over living memory by people like Tamas Vesmas and David Guerin. So a way of sorts had been prepared – and now, here we were, pushing the frontiers back even further.

Two pianists had been pressed into service for this concert, the quality of their credentials suggesting that we were being treated to luxury casting. First up, playing Ligeti, was Xiang Zou, of Chinese birth, and a product of both the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in China and the Juilliard Music School in New York. He’s won various prizes for his piano-playing in various international venues over the years (he’s now thirty years old), and currently he teaches at Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music. He recently gave the Chinese premiere of all three books of Gyorgy Ligeti’s Etudes, so the music one would reasonably assume, would have already been well-and-truly explored, and “taken-on-board” for the purposes of this concert.

Though Ligeti lamented his own lack of pianistic skill, his creative imagination was able to transcend any physical limitations, to produce in these pieces what could well be regarded as the twentieth century’s most Lisztian keyboard explorations (ironic that both composers were Hungarian). Despite the protean technical difficulties of keyboard works I’ve encountered by people such as Busoni, Godowsky and Sorabji, I would feel that perhaps only the piano music of Messiaen can claim to having comparable levels of both technical exploration and poetic creativity to Ligeti’s Etudes.

So – these are a few comments regarding the range and scope of the first of the books. Xiang Zou’s playing of the opening study, Désordre (Disorder), gripped our sensibilities with pincer-like force from the outset. These were sounds which instantaneously conveyed a sense of incredible force and energy, the music setting the keyboard’s white keys across the hands against the black via inexorably rapid, vortex-like movements. The effect was strangely exhilarating, at one and the same time vertiginous and claustrophobic.

Contrasted with this was the Berg-like austerity, the sparse romanticism of Cordes à vide (Hollow Chords), the second of the Etudes. Where the first piece was tightly-worked, to the point of being oppressive, here were opened-out spaces, with calm, delicate detail, impulses nudged and rippled (beautiful left-hand legato figures) rather than things muscled or thrusted. As for the third, the Touches bloquées (Blocked Touches), this highlighted a visual aspect to the studies, as towards the end of the piece the player was required to press keys already held down, the hands therefore mixing ghostly resonance with a kind of dumb-show aspect. At the start the music created an uncanny stuttering ambience, with voices seeming to cancel out each others’ tones, with the dialogue then breaking off for a trebly-voiced trio section, a kind of “noises off” musical mise-en-scène. 

Fanfares, the fourth in the set, had the player alternating and entangling brass and wind calls with roulades of connecting tones, pianist Xiang Zou breathtakingly dovetailing the separate rhythms between the hands, and nicely shaping both the music’s winding down, and the feathery flourishes at the end. Then, with Arc-en-ciel (Rainbow), a free, airy and floating ambience at the start contrasted with richer, more substantial tones that grew with the piece, as if the composer was detailing first the sky and then the earth below. Xiang Zou’s marvellous control of texture and colour enabled the music to dissolve at the end into what seemed like thin air. After such pantheistic delicacy the concluding Automne à Varsovie (Autumn in Warsaw) cruelly brought human emotion into play with the elements, as the music’s tragic, obsessive descending figure seemed to spread like inexorable darkness over everything and everybody,  Xiang Zou’s playing piling on an ever-increasing weight of gloom and despair towards a crushing conclusion at the bottom of the keyboard.

In retrospect, placing the four completed Etudes from Ligeti’s Third Book immediately afterwards was, I felt, too much of a good thing, especially as Xiang Zou’s playing of the first Book was so “of a piece”, bringing out the contrasts so unerringly placed by the composer. The Four Book 3 pieces had for me, their own ambient world, but their presence, in view what else was to follow in the recital, overtaxed the balances, in my opinion. When Jian Liu, currently Head of Piano Studies at Te Koki New Zealand School of Music, finally walked out on the stage to begin his traversal of the Debussy Etudes, we were more than ready for him.

Xiang Zou ‘s playing had excitingly met Ligeti’s demands for a kind of up-front, confrontational virtuosity head-on. Now, we were treated to a marked contrast of both style and content, with the older pianist’s rather more relaxed, less “coiled spring” approach to music that, to be fair, seemed also more inclined to persuade rather than coerce its listeners to accept a point of view. Straightaway, one registered a tonal richness and depth in Debussy’s music largely eschewed by Ligeti, writing almost three-quarters of a century onward.

Unlike with Xiang Zou, I had previously heard Jian Liu play, and his qualities were all that I remembered from my previous encounters with him – first and foremost an ease of tonal production with almost nothing unduly forced, except those strokes by composers which are all the more telling when sparingly employed; and second, a clarity and balance of tone, colour and articulation, which I thought here ideal for the composer of these particular pieces. Since the time of their composition, Debussy’s Etudes have been regarded with as much awe (one writer called the Doux Etudes  “an ultimate in perfection, an end of conquest”) as have Ligeti’s, though for different reasons –  the former create their own unique impression on the listener, for much of the time fulfilling the composer’s oft-quoted remark,”Let us forget that the piano has hammers…”, an attitude to which the performance we got from Jian Liu certainly paid its dues.

Space precludes an exhaustive discussion of every individual item’s performance by each pianist – so, as with Xiang Zou’s Ligeti, I’ll record a few specific impressions of Jian Liu’s playing of the first Debussy group. To begin, the composer’s affectionate tribute to “the five-finger exercise” courtesy of pedagogue Carl Czerny was given appropriate ambivalent treatment, nostalgia tempered by gentle mockery, as befitted a parody-piece, the swirling main idea “put up” to all kinds of antics, impulsive, absent-minded and reflective. Pour les tierces (For the thirds), which followed, placed the “exercise” at the service of the music’s poetry and visceral movement, Liu’s beautifully modulated undulations capturing a readily-evoked “play of waves” effect.

The following Pour les quartes (For the fourths) had a properly volatile character, the march-rhythm capturing the piece, exciting the figurations and carrying our sensibilities triumphantly along, before running out of steam. I like the way Liu’s beautifully brushed-in upward arpeggios at the end restored the music’s equanimities. The pianist’s elegantly-realised tones underlined Debussy’s affinities with Chopin in Pour les sixtes (For the sixths), setting down a beautiful carpet of sound whose resonances supported both feathery brilliance and tones of great stillness. The big-boned Pour les octaves (For the octaves) also demonstrated the pianist’s command of contrast between bravura and delicacy, while the rippling, scampering flat-handed finger-whirling Pour les huit doigts (For the eight fingers) set our senses spinning, glissandi and all, right up to the delightful throwaway ending.

And to think that, at the interval, there were still plenty of worlds within the worlds of these works that we hadn’t yet explored! To reproduce all my notes regarding what we heard afterwards would be to expose my poverty of description – suffice to say that each composer’s music in the second half seemed to be as excellently served by its respective interpreter as before, the two strands again creating an even wider angle of divergence from one another throughout. Jian Liu’s Debussy playing further delighted in the music’s evocations of poetic sonority, while Xiang Zou’s Ligeti continued to rage, melt, burn and whisper, refurbishing our perceptions of pianistic possibility – if the concert was for me a shade too elongated and balanced slightly off-centre, it nevertheless packed plenty of meaningful punches, both iron-fisted and velvet-gloved – a truly memorable occasion.





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