Georges Aperghis: Works for Piano

Nicholas Hodges (Neos 10912)

5 November 2009 3 stars

AperghisAlthough listeners outside mainland Europe don't hear much of Georges Aperghis's music in general, his ensemble and chamber works are especially under-represented. These two aspects of Aperghis's corpus represent less well-known features of a composer who is of course usually considered in terms of his music theatre and vocal output. Convulsive, cartoonish, boundary-flouting and often either hysterically funny or just hysterical, these latter display an originality of craft and depth of talent unmatched in their field.

Alongside, overshadowed, are the instrumental works, of which not many are available on record. This CD of piano music arrives not long after Aperghis's first release on the Kairos label a few months ago, also of chamber works (for viola and saxophone). And between the two we are shown a broader picture than previously available of the Greek composer's range.

None of the pieces included on this disc – which amount to the entire catalogue of Aperghis's mature piano works to date – involve music-theatrical elements. With their interplay of tone and rhythms, however, they more often than not suggest some kind of micro-drama being briefly visited upon the piano's wood and strings, projected outwards onto the listener's ears.

A Tombeau ouvert (1997) opens the disc. A dancing staccato figure bounces onto the piano’s stage, is violently jostled, varied and interrupted, and made to alternately disappear and crop up in snatches throughout. It is an abstract update on rondo form, shot through with all the disturbances to identity wrought by the digital era. About halfway through the piece a new element, a chord sequence, lucid and calm, arrives on the scene, only to be shoved away after a brief moment of hearing. In the end the ludicrous wins out over the stately, only for the ludicrous to have itself become stately by the end (such is life).

A reference spanning all the works here is the disturbed animistic fervour of Ligeti's broken-clockwork style. Despite this the Hungarian composer's solo piano music, with its well-ordered forms and relatively brief durations, is never brought to mind: Aperghis's compositions are more fragmented, their texture more torn up, their duration by and large much longer. All the same it would be of interest to compare these two styles in order to observe what is common between their respectively mechanistic and dramatic countenance – what like strings drag them along or pull at their cogs.

In Les Secrets élémentaires a lengthy form is divided into thirteen different sections, each with its own distinct material. As Patrick Hahn mentions in his sleevenotes, both the scheme and the character of the work are reminiscent of Schumann's Carnaval. And of course that reference sees the dramatic element poke its nose in again: the piano voices sing as if at a masked ball, or rather a dim-lit cabaret, taking the stage one after the other in a mood by and large subdued, melancholic even.

Such sombreness haunts a lot of Aperghis's music, and is reached by way of its febrile and hyperactive surface, which usually serves to distract from it. The piano is a good means to give vent to this underside of the music, undistracted as the listener is by any human declamation, rather made settled by the keyboard's neutral black and white. Nicholas Hodges does an excellent job of conveying this underlying feeling, ably matching the technical demands of the music to play with the highest clarity.

In Printmusic we find ourselves in a terrain of cut-up Debussyan chords, flickering along sporadically in arrhythmic process, shadows on a wall being thrown by a bare light bulb's swinging motion. The pattern cumulatively formed brings to mind Satie's musique d'ameublement: something at once tender and compulsive, homely and ghastly.

For almost thirty years between 1969 and 1997, Aperghis composed no piano music whatsoever (at least none that was published). The sole piano work dating from before that hiatus, Simata, is somewhat of its time in that it is scored for prepared piano. Like Cage, Aperghis at an early stage of his career had an interest in percussion music and made use of the piano to simulate a percussion ensemble. A previous recording of the work was made with pianist Christian Ivaldi playing the score with a piano prepared by the composer. In this newly recorded version Nicholas Hodges's piano is not prepared at all, but is interestingly instead ring modulated to achieve a similar timbral end.

The ring modulation used limits itself to what would have been technologically possible in the late sixties, and so brings to mind works from that era such as Stockhausen's Mantra that explore a similar sound palette. It is different in character from the rest of the works on the disc: more pointillistic, less abstrusely lyrical. But here as everywhere else an unportentous character holds sway; and the explicit electronic taste suggests, again, something mechanical, perhaps not unlike a carousel.

By Liam Cagney

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Related articles:

CD Review: Nicholas Hodges plays Sciarrino solo piano works (Met 1077)
Concert Review: The French premiere of Aperghis's Wölfli-Kantata
Concert Review: Works by Aperghis and Xenakis at Paris's Cité de la musique