Disk 5 of the eight album Ligeti Edition on Sony (LE5 henceforth) is of interest to confirmed Ligeti fans and completists, but it's probably not the best place to begin an exploration of the music of this great postmodernist composer. That's because with the exception of the notorious Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes, the music here is all second hand: arrangements of various Ligeti keyboard works for player piano or barrel organ (the latter being a kind of "player organ" associated with stereotypical European street corner organ grinders). Adapting these piano and harpsichord compositions for mechanical acoustic instruments is an interesting exercise that occasionally offers a new slant on a familiar piece. But these recordings really shouldn't be your primary source for this music.
Jürgen Hocker programmed the Ampico player pianos used to play a half dozen of the piano etudes from Ligeti's late style period, as well as the harpsichord piece Continuum, which despite its brevity is one of Ligeti's most important compositions and one of the miniature masterpieces of the 20th Century. In fact it's this arrangement of Continuum that's the highlight of the album for me. Although the piece still works better for harpsichord (and you can hear it in that version on LE6 among others), I'm grateful to have a technically "perfect" rendition of this piece as a reference point for human attempts to cope with its challenges at the keyboard. Of course, without a real-time human interpretive presence, you don't get the full insight into the structural and dynamic changes in the work (as at the climax for example), and by using player pianos instead of a harpsichord you also miss the thumping sound of the modern harpsichord's action, which is arguably an important timbral element of the piece in its original conception. But it's worth taking any opportunity to cherish this hauntingly beautiful and perfectly crafted little moto perpetuo piece. If you can read music, search online for the worthy analysis of Continuum by Emilios Cambouropoulos and Costas Tsougras.
Less successful is the arrangement of Continuum for barrel organ, which doesn't quite possess the percussive punch or dynamic range that the work requires (and yes I know that a harpsichord can't execute a crescendo or diminuendo and has its own dynamic limitations, but Ligeti clearly exploits couplings of 4-, 8- and 16-foot pitch to create contrast). Hungarian Rock on a barrel organ sounds like it should be accompanying a YouTube novelty video, though I must admit I'm not very fond of the original either. The album Musica Ricercata from Ligeti's early years fares a bit better in the translation to barrel organ, and has in fact been transcribed for other ensemble types as well (e.g., the Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet, recorded on LE7). It's still a minor work, but some of the movements show glimpses of the experimental brilliance that would burst out after Ligeti's escape from Hungary in 1956.
That leaves us with Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes. It really wasn't intended to be taken completely seriously as other Ligeti works, and in the liner notes, Ligeti describes his comportment at the work's 1963 premier, with the obligatory tuxedo and exaggerated theatrics in the over-the-top Fluxus manner. Yes, it was that silly, and Ligeti never really possessed the innate theatrical understanding of artists like Cage and Paik, whose aesthetic informed the Fluxus movement. Nevertheless, there is a serious side to Poème Symphonique, one that positions it within the tradition explored by Xenakis, in which rhythm is modeled after stochastic sound patterns found in nature (like the semi-random distribution of raindrops falling on a noisy surface). Reich's early Pendulum Music, written a few years later, is an American expression of the same underlying concept. Poème also propelled an important stylistic trait in Ligeti's own music that unfolded later in the third movement of the second string quartet, the third movement of the Chamber Concerto, and the Three Pieces for Two Pianos. Ligeti likens this kind of music to the winding/unwinding of a mechanical clock (or, if you will, of metronomes gradually speeding up or slowing down). With tongue-in-cheek I might point out that Poème anticipates the experience of listening to microwave popcorn pop by several years.
As I write this in December 2009, Amazon.com is selling LE1 through LE6 for eight bucks each. At that price any one of them is a bargain, including this one. LE5 isn't essential Ligeti, but it's still worth acquiring for those already familiar with this music or those looking to complete their collection.
UPDATE March 2010: Sony has made the entire Ligeti Edition series available in an inexpensive nine-CD box set that includes this CD, so you should probably just buy that set instead of this single CD if you're interested in Ligeti's music.