György Ligeti completed his Piano Concerto in 1988. It is in five movements, twenty-five minutes in duration, and perhaps the finest concerto from the 1980s. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the composer wrote many successful concertos. In these earlier works, Ligeti was writing extremely dense and dissonant works in a style that utilized micropolyphony, a method of writing he created where numerous independent melodic lines become a larger, sonorous mass of sound. Ligeti had acquired enough listeners and imitators to be at the forefront of the avant-garde. Then in the late 1970s he suffered a heart condition that made him incapable of composing for years. When he returned to health in the 1980s the music he was writing was different, in some ways returning to his original love of Bartók which preceded his period of micropolyphony compositions.
Ligeti's Piano Concerto is a super-modern piano concerto, featuring all the knowledge and musicality of a brilliant composer who had carefully absorbed the musical lessons and currents of the twentieth century. It eludes serialism but does not shy completely away from the sonorities associated with it. Ligeti and Boulez were good friends, and Boulez often conducted and recorded Ligeti's. It is interesting that Boulez had once championed a specific kind of avant-garde approach and claimed it to be the only one of value, but became an advocate of one of the very few composers who ignored this mandate completely.
The beginning of the Concerto is among the most consonant moments in Ligeti's catalog, spiraling into regions of timbre and rhythmic impetus that have no precedent. It is not regressive or grindingly rigorous, never sounding as though it attempts to fit a new method of composing into an exclusive musical envelope. Other important influences at work here are the piano rolls of Conlon Nancarrow, and fractal mathematics. Clearly, this is synthetic music. Furthermore, Ligeti is not afraid to have a horn solo sail over the burgeoning musical engine of great excitement, even though the idea is unoriginal in theory. In this work, there is very little of a foreground/background duality. The piano steers the ship from within, making its presence not a separate component but rather a vital one. What is really wondrous about this work is its lack of lofty tone. Ligeti here seems jubilant, having a great time, and is well-disposed towards all. Ligeti's Piano Concerto is an excellent piece for introducing the uninitiated to the world of the avant-garde; it is welcoming, warm, and makes a total lack of triviality sound as approachable as a Buster Keaton film.