Ligeti Etudes from Hell

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 8

English speakers should know that one of the meanings for the word “hell” in German is “clear”. In other words, think of pianist Thomas Hell as “Thomas Clear” (in fact, there was a famous record collector named Thomas Clear who produced a number of historic reissues in the LP era). And as it happens, this pianist plays Ligeti’s “hellish” etudes very “clearly”, if not with the last word in color and tonal magic.

Hell lets the asymmetrical ostinatos in Automne à Varsovie and Entrelacs distinctly sing out, while imparting sharper definition to Fém’s detached phrases than in Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s suaver reading. Although Aimard dispatches Der Zauberlehling’s dizzying repeated notes with astounding lightness, speed, and agility, Hell’s slower tempo allows you to better absorb their rhythmic intricacies and imitations of electronic instruments.

Hell does not observe Coloana infinită’s “Presto possible” directive to Aimard’s brisk standard, but his slower tempo fortifies the impact and better defines the harmonic motion throughout the work’s loud, thick chords. On the other hand, Aimard boasts stronger textural differentiation and suppler fast chords in Désordre, and shapes Vertige’s scales with much smoother, pedal-based legato, although Hell’s plainer spoken interpretation holds its tempo throughout whereas Aimard slightly slows down as the music unfolds.

If you want all 18 Ligeti Etudes (minus the piano-roll alternative edition of No. 14) on one physical CD release, Thomas Hell is your “clear” frontrunner. However, Fredrik Ullén’s deft, imaginative, and multi-leveled interpretations remain my point of reference and are available via download as part of that pianist’s complete Ligeti piano music cycle for BIS.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Ullén (BIS); Aimard (Sony)

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