By Kyle MacMillan
CHICAGO — Few works become instant classics in the slow-moving world of classical music, but that is exactly what happened with György Ligeti’s 18 Études, which he composed in three books from 1985 through 2001. An étude is typically thought of as a short musical exercise to improve the skills of a player, but composers like Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, and, of course, Ligeti have also seen this compact form as a potent means of artistic expression.
No artist knows more about Ligeti and his highly original music than Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who performed a nearly sold-out recital March 6 under the auspices of the University of Chicago in the school’s Logan Center for the Arts. The recital was part of a five-state, seven-city American tour that included a stop at Carnegie Hall and concludes on March 13 at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.
The celebrated French pianist began to study the composer’s output in the early 1980s while a founding member of the Paris-based Ensemble Intercontemporain, initiating a tight-knit collaboration that continued until Ligeti’s death in 2006. Aimard had a particularly close connection to Ligeti’s Études. He gave the French premiere of the first book in 1987, and the composer chose him to premiere nearly all of the late works in the set, even dedicating No. 10 and 12 to the pianist. So, it was naturally disappointing when the program was changed before this concert, with Aimard choosing to perform five of the Études and not the whole set as had originally been announced.
But it was hard to complain too much, because what took center stage instead was a complete performance of Ligeti’s Musica ricercata, one of his most significant early works from 1951-53. The 11-movement work’s title is related to the ricercar, a relatively loose term referring to a Renaissance and early Baroque instrumental form akin to a toccata or fantasia. Bach used the ricercar as a title for several of the movements in his Musical Offering. In this conception, Ligeti builds the first movement on just two pitches (A and D) and then adds a pitch in each successive movement until the 11th, which includes the full 12-note chromatic scale. Such an obviously systematic approach might seem as though it would lead to music that was rigorous, even dogmatic, but these works feel wonderfully arbitrary and free.