by Paul Orgel
Vermont-based pianist Michael Arnowitt played five of Györgi Ligeti’s Etudes for piano on the Humanities Program Concert Series at Saint Michael’s College In Colchester, VT on 4 November 2007. He has been working on these dense and dazzling pieces for eight years and performed them from memory.
[In addition to the Ligeti Etudes, the program offered a collection of 20th century works for piano and wind instruments by Hindemith, Stravinsky, Bartók, and Ligeti (his 1951 Musica Ricercata performed by a group of student pianists). In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I am the Director of the Humanities Program Concert Series, and also performed as a pianist in this concert.]
Michael Arnowitt deserves to be far better known. Nothing in his playing is casual; each note has a vibrant, purposeful sound and his extreme rhythmic steadiness, limitless technique, and prodigious explorations of huge portions of the piano literature bring to mind the best qualities of Glenn Gould and Sviatoslav Richter, the two pianists whom he most admires. (And as with those two very idiosyncratic players, “charming” or “sensuous” are not the words that best describe Arnowitt’s playing).
Ever since the modern master pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard recorded them several years ago, pianists seeking challenges have gravitated toward the fourteen studies that Ligeti composed: Book I from 1985 containing six études was followed in the next several years with the eight that comprise Book II. I have a slight preference for the recording by pianist Frédéric Ullen whose drier acoustic renders the music less phantasmagoric and more lucid, but both recordings are authoritative and made with the composer’s supervision.
Like Chopin’s Etudes in their time, these pieces expand what is technically possible at the keyboard. Like Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, they have intriguing titles and some have extra-musical programs, and like Debussy’s Etudes, they are the joyous experiments of a composer in full maturity. They are eclectic in their influences: the polyrhythms of African drumming, jazz, the player piano music of Conlon Nancarrow, and Eastern European folk music all play their part. They are also exhibitionistic, piling difficulty upon difficulty. Whether or not they will emerge as enduring masterpieces in the line of Chopin and Debussy’s Etudes remains to be seen, but unlike most late 20th century piano music, they satisfy my two personal criteria for evaluating new music: 1) I want to hear them over and over again, and 2) I am able to hear new things in them with repeated listenings.
Arnowitt played four Etudes from Book I beginning with “Fanfares” where his approach was slightly more deliberate than Aimard’s or Ullen’s. (He spoke of the influence of Thelonius Monk’s style here and Monk’s placement of notes was nothing if not deliberate, but ideally, I think the piece sounds happier, less labored, if played a little lighter and faster. Fanfares” was followed by “Arc-en-ciel”, a jazz-like piece that owes something to the style of Bill Evans. This slow étude is comparable to the gentle “Paysage” among Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes in which sensitivity to sound and voicing becomes one more technique on display. Here Arnowitt achieved chrystaline chordal balances and fine phrasing.
In the brilliant “Touches bloquées” certain keys are depressed silently, blocking the pianist’s attempts to play stepwise patterns. The resulting rhythms are extremely complex. Arnowitt suggested that the audience try to imagine continuity in musical lines fractured by silent spaces. In “Cordes à vide,” Ligeti constructs a lyrical study in fifths, adding that interval to those that Debussy used in his Etudes (thirds, fourths, sixths, and octaves). Finally, “Der Zauberlehrling” is Ligeti’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” based on Goethe’s poem. It is a frenzied perpetual motion piece with minimalist patterns. Arnowitt presented it with a sense of fun as the showpiece that it is.
Arnowitt’s repertoire is extremely broad, ranging from Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” performed with all of its repeats to Ives’ “Concord Sonata.” He is midway through a project in which he performs each of Beethoven’s piano sonatas as he reaches the age that Beethoven was when he composed it. He regularly presents several “tours-de-force” such as a program of music composed in 1911 (Bartok, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Ives, Ravel), challenging new works by Vermont composers, and great amounts of standard Chopin, Schumann, etc. In recent years, partly in an effort to get more paying gigs, Arnowitt has also become an impeccable jazz pianist.
Earlier this year, the classical music world followed with fascination as Joyce Hatto, a pianist whose repertoire and musicianship seemed to know no bounds, was revealed to be a fraud. Her recordings turned out to be those of other pianists; her supposed accomplishments were too good to be true. Hatto’s jaded audience, those who would discover little-known pianists of amazing stature, should investigate the concerts and recordings of Michael Arnowitt. Unlike Hatto, he is is the “real thing” and should be given the opportunity to play and record much more. His presence in Vermont (with performances such as the Ligeti Etudes) helps to elevate our classical music scene to a level beyond the provincial. He is the subject of a fine documentary, “Beyond 88 Keys” by filmmaker, Susan Bettman.