György Ligeti: Études (Books I and II), Idil Biret, piano

Back when I worked at a record store, the news of an artist’s death made my coworkers and me speculate on how much a spike we’d get in selling that artist’s CDs.

György Ligeti passed away on June 12, 2006, and I contributed to that spike a few days afterward. I asked the classical expert at the store where I worked for some recommendations, and I ended up with a Sony disc of string quartets and duets and a disc of piano etudes.

With 20th Century classical music, it’s far too easy for living composers to wank in the guise of dissonance. I listened to a lot of modern classical music back in college, and as high-minded as that art world can be, it’s no more immune to mediocrity than rock music.

Ligeti is the real thing.

In the liner notes for Idil Biret’s Naxos recording of Ligeti’s études, the composer said he set out to write these pieces because he was a terrible pianist himself. But the rhythmic drive of the first étude in Book I, "Désordre", doesn’t sound like the product of a deficient performer. Though not melodic, there’s an undercurrent of tonality in the banged flurry of the piece’s pulse.

Études are meant to be piano exercises that come across as music works, and Ligeti doesn’t disguise this fact — it’s somewhat easy to hear which technique a particular étude exercises.

At the same time, these exercise are still incredibly expressive. They get agitated, lyrical, expressive, even joyous.

As chromatic as these pieces are, they never lose a sense of direction. The difficulty of dischordant composition is conveying a sense of structure where melody and harmony are absent.

Ligeti is masterful and intuitive in that regard. Classical forms may not be apparent in his music to untrained ears — or even trained ones, for that matter — but the aural scaffolding is there.

It’s been a long time since the work of a modern composer grabbed my attention and held it, but with Ligeti, the effect is immediate.