Official Release: 17 September 2021
Chopin’s Études, Liszt’s Études d’exécution transcendante, Debussy’s and Ligeti’s Études: within the boundless literature of Piano Études, some collections have reached, with time, the status of unavoidable classics, thanks to the very high technical and musical level they represent. They therefore left the tiny, and very private, space reserved for “finger gymnastics”, indispensable for pianists wishing to enter the professional ranks. Études are artistic amplifications of the simple technical exercises, and are therefore more appealing than them. In spite of all the contumelies which could be thought of them, the Études by Czerny will always be more interesting and pleasing than bare scales. The results of this pedagogical/artistic operation (which marks the intentions also of an undisputed masterpiece such as Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier) are extremely varied. They range from pragmatic usefulness (Czerny, Clementi, Heller, Cramer) to the most delirious utopias (Alkan, Mereaux, Godowsky…). Only the above-cited collections, along with many others which are not mentioned here, distinguished themselves for their balance between instrumental mechanicism and artistic inspiration, without detriment for either component.
To be more precise, what distinguishes Chopin’s Études op. 25 from one of the extremely numerous coeval collections of études, such as for example Czerny’s 24 Grandes études caractéristiques op. 692? In all likelihood, a fundamental role is played by the overcoming of a Biedermeier idea of piano technique, in function of an entirely innovative expressive and timbral research. It suffices to compare op. 25 no. 12, in C minor, with op. 692 no. 20, in the same key and by the title of Les vagues de l’Océan (this is a curious coincidence, since Etude op. 25 no. 12 is known as Ocean Etude in the English-speaking world). One then realizes that the forced, and under some aspects redundant, proportions of Czerny’s Étude are condensed within a very clear and synthetic ABA form by Chopin. This is indebted, for the cleanness of its harmonic and rhetoric conduit, to the second Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, rather than to the Romantic Études.
Chopin’s operation of synthesis does not regard form only, but also the kind of technical difficulty on which the Étude is built. Just as the modulations are contained within close keys (and are not centrifugal as in op. 692 no. 20, which goes from C minor to C-sharp minor in its central section), so also the technical combinations undergo a reductio ad unum (the change between little finger and thumb on the same note of the arpeggio), whilst Czerny’s Étude requires arpeggios, broken chords, scales, melodies in octaves, leaps and much more.
As in the rest of his output, including the specifically “Polish” one, Chopin has clear compositional references on which he shapes the form of his Études: Bach, and especially his Preludes, and Mozart, as concerns the balance and proportions of the musical phrases.
Moreover, it should not be forgotten that Chopin’s technical approach to the piano is that of a self-taught musician, even if a genius-like one. Therefore, he is not too much indebted to canonic technical stereotypes. This explains why, in his contemporaries’ eyes, pieces such as Etude op. 10 no. 2 must have resembled “devilries for twisting the fingers”, and why the Études represent such a sensational stage in the instrument’s history.
The twelve Études op. 25 were published in 1837 and dedicated to Marie d’Agoult, who, at the time, was Liszt’s partner: to Liszt, Chopin had already dedicated his Études op. 10.
They are ordered following a free tonal scheme, even though some relationships can be observed among them. For example, no. 9 in G-flat major and no. 6 in G-sharp minor end with the dominant chord of the following Études, respectively nos. 10 and 7. These pieces have generally a broader scope than their homologues of op. 10, and are stylistically located in the composer’s full maturity. Suffice it to compare two “slow” Études from the two collections, i.e. op. 10 no. 3 and op. 25 no. 7, to note that, in the latter, the tripartite form is enriched by an introductory instrumental recitative. Moreover, the texture here replaces the simple accompanied melody with a musical discourse based on three sound layers (the melody at the bass and soprano, with an accompaniment in the central register). Similar amplifications are found also in Etude no. 10, whose central section changes both its key and its agogic indications, thus creating a tripartite form identical to that of no. 5, in E minor (a kind of Mazurka exploring the technical possibilities deriving from the finger combination of index and little finger vs. thumb). They can be also observed in Étude no. 11 in A minor, preceded by a very short introduction which presents the piece’s principal theme first monodically, and later as a chorale-like harmonization, brusquely followed by the “real” etude (one of the most dramatic and rhetorically passionate pieces by Chopin). Aphoristic pieces are not missing, similar to certain Preludes: this is the case with Etude no. 2, a delicate perpetuum mobile, or no. 9, on the lightness and grace of the octaves. There are also exquisitely “technical” Études, such as no. 6 on thirds and no. 8 on sixths, or “bravura” pieces (such as no. 3 in F major or no. 4 in A minor, known – not perchance – by the nickname of Paganini, perhaps in consideration of its similarity with the famous eponymous piece in Schumann’s Carnaval). The collection is framed by no. 1, with its timbral research (Aeolian harp, following Schumann’s famous definition of Chopin’s performance style), a very sweet melody revolving around one note and sustained by a vaporous accompaniment of rapid and extremely light arpeggios, and by the already-mentioned no. 12.
If Chopin’s Études are the compositional apotheosis of a genius-like pianist, Ligeti’s Études can be considered as the pianistic apotheosis of a genius-like composer. It is well known that the composer repeatedly stressed that he was not a performer at all. It is therefore all the more surprising that his output of Études (18 in total, divided among three books composed between 1985 and 2001) entered the standard performance repertoire in a stable fashion, along with those by Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninov.
The first book of Études, recorded here, is made of six pieces, each provided with a poetic title, or referring to the kind of compositional/pianistic technique informing it.
The first three Études are dedicated to Pierre Boulez and explore exquisitely structural questions. The first, Désordre, is a devilish polyrhythmic perpetuum mobile, played by the right hand on the white keys (diatonic scale) and by the left hand on the black keys (pentatonic scale); it requires an absolute independence of the hands. No. 2, Cordes à vide (open strings, with reference to the bowed-string instruments’ tuning) is an Étude on timbre and on the possible technical combinations deriving from the interval of a perfect fifth. These double stops are normally not included in the Études, not even in those by Debussy, who audaciously wrote an Etude on fourths, or by Scriabin who authored one on ninths. No. 3, Touches bloquées, explores some timbral effects created by depressing some keys without letting the corresponding string resonate, or after having let them resonate; therefore, they cannot be depressed by the other hand. The effect is that of a limping rhythm, in spite of the notes’ continuing flow. This technical device had been experimented by Ligeti already in 1976 with his Three Pieces for Two Pianos. If the ear were close to the keyboard, the noise of the finger depressing the muted keys could be noticed, especially towards the piece’s ending.
No. 4, Fanfares, is built on an irregular rhythmic ostinato (3-2-3), repeated no less than 208 times, and inspired by the Turkish musical theory of the aksak. Over it, rapid melodic fragments are superimposed, evoking, albeit very subtly, a quick fanfare of brass instruments. No. 5, Arc-en-ciel, is possibly the most famous of the collection, and the one closest to a certain triadic harmony and to a certain kind of jazz. The overall ternary structure, and the melodic line (descending at first, and ascending later) describe an arc of sorts, thence the title. The last Étude, Automne à Varsovie, is the complex reinterpretation of a Fugue. It is complete and formed by a subject (a chromatic one, modelled after the Baroque Lamento and divided into three musical phrases) undergoing augmentations and diminutions throughout the piece. Three ascending climaxes divide the piece’s three sections. This Étude is dedicated to my Polish friends: it was composed for an important festival of contemporary music taking place in Warsaw, a city which symbolically unites the two composers recorded here, and to which each dedicated an Etude.
Even though the two collections are not frequently combined in recordings, Chopin’s and Ligeti’s Études draw the performer, along with the listener, through impervious challenges up to peaks of exalted instrumental virtuosity. They succeed in the arduous enterprise of transforming the difficult into the beautiful.
Liner Notes © Emanuele Delucchi 2021
Federico Pulina: Federico Pulina is an Italian pianist, chamber musician and teacher based in Lucerne.
His musical career began at the age of five at the small Civic School of Music in Ploaghe, his home town. He studied with masters Anna Revel, Davide Cabassi, Luca Moretti, Marco Rogliano and Marco Decimo. Since 2020 he has been living in Lucerne and continues his studies in Konstantin Lifschitz's piano class. In 2011 he made his debut with the orchestra Marija Judina at the Teatro Storchi in Modena and at the Teatro Verdi in Sassari performing Mozart’s Concerto KV 488, under the guidance of Maestro Giovanni Paganelli. In the same year, he was invited to the inaugural concert of the prestigious Palazzo Giordano in Sassari. Since then, he is often invited as soloist and chamber musician in prestigious music festivals in Italy and abroad. The love for the chamber music repertoire and the friendship with Alice Boiardi and Irene Barbieri has contributed to found in 2019 the Trio Fenice, a formation with which he is still active.
He has won numerous awards in international competitions. Among the most recent ones, the first prize at the competition dedicated to the memory of the duo Giangrandi Eggman and the “Young Artist Concert Special Prizes” dedicated to the memory of Umberto Benedetti Michelangeli at the International Prize “Mauro Paolo Monopoli”. Selected among the finalists of the AEVEA Piano Prize competition, he has recorded the complete études of F.Chopin in the Maffeiana Hall of Verona.
In August 2020 he has been selected by the academy of chamber musicians of Bari and he will be included in future concert programs of the Academy. In the same month, he has been invited, as the only Italian student, to attend the summer courses of the foundation Theo and Petra Lieven in Vienna meeting pianists such as Jean-Marc Luisada, Alon Goldstein, Jura Margulis, Claudio Martínez Mehner, Ferenc Rados and Rita Wagner.
Frédéric Chopin: (b Żelazowa Wola, nr Warsaw, 1 March 1810; d Paris, 17 Oct 1849). Polish composer and pianist. He combined a gift for melody, an adventurous harmonic sense, an intuitive and inventive understanding of formal design and a brilliant piano technique in composing a major corpus of piano music. One of the leading 19th-century composers who began a career as a pianist, he abandoned concert life early; but his music represents the quintessence of the Romantic piano tradition and embodies more fully than any other composer’s the expressive and technical characteristics of the instrument.
György Ligeti: (b Dicsőszentmárton [Diciosânmartin, now Tîrnăveni], Transylvania, 28 May 1923; d Wien, 12 June 2006). Hungarian composer. After being exposed to two tyrannies in his youth, Nazi and Stalinist, he left Hungary following the 1956 Russian suppression of his country’s independence and found himself, in western Europe, confronted by another stern ideology, that of the Darmstadt-Cologne avant garde. The effect was twofold. He was liberated to pursue long-cherished ideals of musical advance, but at the same time his critical, contrary spirit was sharpened. Unlike many of his young colleagues in the west, he was suspicious of system, rejoiced in the delightfulness and evocativeness of sound, and steadily reintroduced – though in quite new ways, guided by an exact ear – things that serial orthodoxy had refused, such as simple harmonies, ostinatos and palpable melodies. Just when this process of recuperation might have led him, in the early 1980s, to join the new dominant movement of postmodernist collage and retrospect, he found further stimulation and contradiction in non-European musical cultures, especially Caribbean, central African and East Asian. Always paradoxical, he found this music of the world enhancing his sense of himself as musically a Hungarian, and began to publish or republish many of the compositions he had written decades earlier.