Peter Lieberson on Record

The six essential Lieberson CDs:

NW 325-2 Peter Lieberson: Piano Concerto (Boston Symphony/Seiji Ozawa/Peter Serkin)

DG 457 606-2 Peter Lieberson: Raising the Gaze (The Cleveland Orchestra/ASKO Ensemble/London Sinfonietta/Oliver Knussen/Rosemary Hardy) includes Drala, Concerto for Four Groups of Instruments, Accordance, Three Songs, Ziji, Raising the Gaze, Fire, Free and Easy Wanderer

Bridge 9178 Peter Lieberson: Rilke Songs, The Six Realms, Horn Concerto (The Odense Symphony Orchestra/Justin Brown/Donald Palma/Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson/Peter Serkin/William Purvis/Michaela Fukacova)

Bridge 9317 Peter Lieberson: Red Garuda (New York Philharmonic/ James Conlon/Orion String Quartet/Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson/Peter Serkin) includes Red Garuda, Rilke Songs, Bagatelles, Piano Quintet)

Nonesuch 79954-2 Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson sings Peter Lieberson: Neruda Songs (Boston Symphony Orchestra/James Levine)

Bridge 9412  Peter Lieberson Vol 3: Piano Concerto No. 3 and Viola Concerto (The Odense Symphony Orchestra/Scott Yoo/Steven Beck/Roberto Diaz) 

I briefly met Peter Lieberson backstage at a concert given by his wife, Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson. Most of my party gathered around the star, but I went over to the new husband lurking in the shadows.

“Man, I know every note of your Piano Concerto!” I said.

He looked at me like I had spoken in a strange language. “Really?”

“Yeah, I love it!”

“Well, thank you!”

During his lifetime, I bought every Lieberson CD as soon as it came out. The year after he died I listened to his complete recorded work and considered his trajectory.

Angular modernism can be forgettable. My attention wandered during a long walk with Concerto for 4 Groups of Instruments (1972) on repeat. Each time I came back to mindfulness I’d be uncertain where I was in the eight-minute work. Even though there are a couple of nice chorale-ish sections that break up the pointillism, it’s hard to discern a narrative.

Lieberson himself seemed to regard Concerto for 4 Groups of Instruments as an important work: There are two recordings spanning three decades and an anecdote in Justin Davidson’s memorial. This kind of hardcore piece must build a young composer’s muscles, just like sonata form, passacaglia, and fugue.

Piano Fantasy (1975) is in a similar genre. Again, there are two recordings, an early one on CRI by Ursula Oppens and a later one by Peter Serkin on Koch. The Piano Fantasy is obviously well done but remains a challenging listen.

The next work, Accordance (1975), is where Lieberson finds an original voice.

Family matters: Lieberson’s father Goddard was profiled as “The Musical Businessman” in the Mar. 16, 1959 issue of Time magazine.

He composed everything from a symphony to pieces for a string quartet before deciding that a composer—at least of his caliber—”could not make a living in the U.S.” He took a $50-a-week job with Columbia just a few months after CBS bought it. Later, as Director of Masterworks, Lieberson almost single-handed built up Columbia’s skimpy catalogue of classical works to compete with first-place RCA Victor. He was made executive vice president in 1949, president in 1956, now earns a salary of $70,000 a year, plus benefits that bring it to about $100,000.

In 1959, Columbia released several hit jazz records including Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and Time Out by Dave Brubeck. (Goddard Lieberson himself pushed for “Take Five” to be released as a single.) In this era Goddard Lieberson also documented all of Igor Stravinsky’s music, the including masterful late period twelve-tone works like Agon, Movements, and Requiem Canticles.

Could Accordance be seen as a mix of Kind of Blue and Agon? Possibly! At the least, Peter Lieberson himself name-checked these classic 50s pieces in interviews over the years.

In Accordance, resonant clusters bounce among his eight players, a flexible ensemble even called a “band” by Lieberson in the liner notes. Advanced jazz composers only wish they could control their pitches so well.

Lieberson drew a line in the sand with Tashi Quartet (1979).

I composed my Tashi Quartet during 1978-79 for the members of the chamber group Tashi (Peter Serkin, Fred Sherry, Ida Kavafian and Richard Stolzman) to whom the work is dedicated. I had not written any music for a year, feeling for many reasons that a particular phase of my musical life was over. Beginning to compose again I rediscovered musical passions that had been overshadowed by the rigor of my training in the 12 tone system. I began to seek a different richness in musical expression: having composed with a pervasive and constant chromaticism, I was certain that the sophistication of the 12 tone system could embrace a great deal more fluidity and freedom: rhythmically, harmonically, and even stylistically. The Tashi Quartet sounds quite tonal yet is written with twelve-tone techniques I learned from my teachers and from the scores of late Stravinsky.

It’s a substantial work, five movements lasting over half an hour. The beginning is rather unpromising: there must be hundreds of chamber pieces that start with a single repeating pitch gradually colored by dissonance. But as the work unfolds, the point of this “new” Lieberson is clear. Rather than the non-narrative style of academic serialism, Tashi Quartet tells a story with many repeating cells and short melodies. Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time was Tashi’s signature work, and a few hypnotic sections of Tashi Quartet seem connected to Messiaen’s aesthetic.

Not everything is successful. A “jazzy” Scherzo seems stuck while working with a few uncharismatic motifs. In the finale, the bright major triads in the piano (another salute to Messiaen?) gild the lily. The highlight is a droning, mysterious Adagio.

Tashi didn’t record their eponymous quartet, but the recent release by Antares is excellent.

Lieberson’s first orchestral work was the Concerto for Piano (1980), commissioned by the Boston Symphony, played at Avery Fisher Hall in 1984, and recorded for New World Records the previous year. A summer ’83 Tanglewood performance was reviewed poorly by Edward Rothstein in The New York Times, a misstep that Andrew Porter goes out of his way to dismiss in a page-long, technically insightful rave in The New Yorker.

The press kept coming: Tim Page wrote a preview of the Avery Fisher gig for the Times, and the day of the show was recapped by Timothy Crouse for the “Talk of the Town” section of The New Yorker. The latter focuses mainly on the anxieties of a New York premiere, and concludes, “Rudolf Serkin, a beatific smile on his face, embraced Mr. Lieberson and said, ‘Peter, fantastic!’”

There were two fantastic Peters onstage that night, Serkin and Lieberson, childhood friends, both with famous parents. (They look strikingly similar on the back photo of the New World disc.) Serkin’s poetic imagination gets into top gear when confronted with modernism: few pianists have done as much to make angular scores naturally appealing. Seiji Ozawa and the BSO also sound excited, especially the brass.

The first movement of the Concerto is a roiling, muddled, blob of sound, an imperfect platform for arching melodies, a precarious ship on high seas. (The “ship” metaphor actually comes from Ozawa, quoted in the Crouse piece.) At times this slightly breathless narrative sounds like an old Hollywood score under attack. But the hero saves the day: the final push, reprising the start of the work, fights jagged clusters to reach F-sharp major at the end.

It is one of my favorite concerto movements in the whole of the repertoire. One time on tour with a tango band in California, in the era of the portable Discman, I listened to it every day for two weeks. That was why I had the gumption to tell Lieberson to his face, “Man, I know every note of your Piano Concerto!”

During the second and third movements the melodic impulse seems less urgent and the overall impression is more diffuse. But, on the other hand, I’ve never been able to hear a second opinion or see the work live. Despite more hype and support from mainstream sources than could ever be imagined today, Lieberson’s Concerto for Piano hasn’t succeeded as a repertory piece. Peter Serkin is the only pianist who has ever performed it: a few times in the Eighties, and in 1995 at the Aldeburgh Festival with Knussen conducting.

Family matters: Right around the time of Peter Lieberson’s debut at Avery Fisher Hall, his mother Vera Zorina, a muse of George Balanchine, published an amusing memoir, Zorina.  Zorina seems to think her life was over once she married Goddard Lieberson and became a mother. The fact that her son Peter is a composer is not mentioned in Zorina.

Three Songs (1981) asks a soprano to belt out disjunct lines over a noisy and pointillistic chamber group. This approach alienates all but the most austere and humorless, yet composers wrote pieces like this with a straight face for half a century. I admit the meaty clarinet solo in the second song is fabulous.

Lalita: Chamber Variations (1984), is found on the brilliant Speculum Musicae LP A Fifteenth Anniversary Album alongside Charles Wuorinen’s masterpiece “Spinoff” and Seymour Shifrin’s intense The Nick of Time.

Lalita is a big piece in two extended movements.  In a way, it seems as thorny and impersonal as Concerto for 4 Groups of Instruments, but maybe I just need to get to know it better. Like the earlier work, it seems to regard “duets, solos, and trios” as the proper mandate for a medium-sized chamber ensemble, so a live performance (where you can “watch” as well as listen) may be needed for total clarity. A couple of moments are unforgettable: the string introduction, the huge drum thumps that close the first movement, and the gathering of energetic chords toward the end as the concert toms roil and toil.

My introduction to Lieberson were three Bagatelles (1985) programmed along with Stravinsky and Wolpe for a Peter Serkin recital for New World Records. This was one of the first classical piano CDs I ever owned. After liking what I heard of the Bagatelles, I acquired a copy of the score.

There is always going to be discontinuity in twelve-tone music, but there should be something else, some undefinable charisma or magic that makes the sentences roll on through an effortless rhythm. Whatever it is, these Bagatelles have it.

A decade later, Peter Serkin re-recorded them for RCA for his compilation of living composers, In Real Time. There is little difference in interpretation, although perhaps the middle movement, “Spontaneous Songs,” is even more mesmerizing on the second recording.

(A few Lieberson piano pieces remain unrecorded, notably the sixteen-minute Variations from 1995, played by Emanuel Ax. Alex Ross reviewed the premiere for the New York Times and wrote, “Mr. Lieberson has created a powerful, kinetic, luminous piece that deserves to enter the permanent repertory.”)

Common wisdom holds that Drala (1986) was Lieberson’s best piece yet, the great reveal of the great composer.

In name, approachable size and clear ideas, Drala is reminiscent of Thomas Adès’ Asyla from 1997. There is something similar in sonority, too: Drala’s gorgeous opening “Invocation,” with its bells and morphing tonal chords, seems to prefigure the large orchestra of Asyla.

Drala is obviously a great work. The astoundingly sophisticated harmony does not prevent a clear narrative. Unlike a random sampling from Concerto for Four Groups of Instruments, any fragment from Drala belongs only to this piece, and to nothing else.

Lieberson’s essay “Concept Becomes Experience” explains how the transformation from academic serialist to narrative composer was hastened by his religion. Apparently a conversion to Buddhism gave Lieberson permission to write the chord progressions in “Invocation.”

The problem with Lieberson isn’t harmony, though. It never was. The problem is rhythm.

The last movement of Drala, “Raising Windhorse,” is based on a Tibetan Shambhala victory cry.  In the liner notes, Lieberson proudly copies out this syncopated chant in Western mixed-meter notation.


If one was in Tibet with a bunch of the real monks doing serious transcendence, the music of that victory cry would be serious business. Even if you are a wealthy Westerner on retreat with a important leader like Chögyam Trungpa, doing this chant in your novice group would have power.

But in the context of modernist music scored for orchestra, this folkloric chant loses its meaning. The distance between the original raw intent and its appropriation for artistic goals is just too great.

The conductor Oliver Knussen and the Cleveland Orchestra can’t really be blamed: in fact they do a good job. It is the composer who is at fault here. Lieberson had a private, powerful, folkloric rhythmic experience, but shouldn’t have expected all the members of an orchestra get on that same page.

In general, the big rhythmic finales of most 20th-century orchestral composers are problematic. They lumber around so unattractively, the word “Riverdance” lurking in the wings. The Balkan-styled “Allegro Molto” that concludes Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta is a perfect example.

In Asyla, Adès’s created a successful folkloric rhythmic movement, “Ecstasio.” But this is not a private or undulating folklore like Tibetan or Hungarian: it is straight up-and-down techno. No rhythmic sophistication beyond monotonous metronomic accuracy is required.

Appropriating techno gives Adès a flat, non-profound surface to pervert, and the resulting “transcendence” is a complex emotion. What Lieberson asks for in “Raising Windhorse” has a more complex and spiritual starting point, but the end result is much more obvious, even banal.

Ziji (1987) begins with a full-throated lumber, but here the square rhythms are obviously just a little ironic march to wake up and get moving. The music is almost non-narrative as the chamber ensemble explores lots of nooks and crannies in an amused way. A featured horn part is a lot of fun. Toward the middle, momentum starts to build, but forward motion is always undone by random coups, and the piece ends quietly.

Even better is Raising the Gaze (1988), which trades horn for percussion.  Raising the Gaze is pure ear candy as the flexible ensemble dances around in strange geometry somewhat like Stravinsky’s Agon. Lieberson says, “I composed Raising the Gaze quickly, with the feeling of executing a set of brush strokes in thick black ink,” which is almost what Bill Evans wrote for the liner notes of Kind of Blue: “There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment.”

There are two recordings so far. The Boston Musica Viva under Richard Pittman is fine but the ASKO Ensemble under Oliver Knussen is just terrific. The group includes Eleonore Pameijer, flute/piccolo, Jacques Meertens, clarinet, Harry Sparnaay, bass clarinet, Jan-Erik van Regteren Altena, violin, Bernadette Verhagen, viola, Taco Kooistra, cello, René Eckhardt, piano, and Wim Vos, percussion.

The three tonal Fantasy Pieces (1989), “Breeze of Delight,” “Dragon’s Thunder,” and “Memory’s Luminous Wind” offer a meeting of Buddhism with Robert Schumann.

Family matters: Elegy (1990) is dedicated to Jonathan Lieberson, who died in 1989 at 40.  In the NY Times obit of Jonathan Lieberson, Bruce Chatwin is quoted as describing the author and editor as ”one of the most intelligent and articulate men in America.”

At the beginning of Elegy, the violin and piano play separately as much as together. When they finally seriously join forces, an orchestral texture is suggested by how both instruments play melody and accompaniment. The return of a soaring tune six minutes in gives me goosebumps. The recording by Frank Almond and Brian Zeger is excellent.

The next work, King Gesar (1991) is the nadir of Lieberson’s output. It’s the only Lieberson piece for Sony Classical, a development of Goddard Lieberson’s Columbia Records, and features a star cast including Emanuel Ax and Yo-Ya Ma, Peter Serkin, William Purvis, and David Taylor.

Lieberson helped his mother learn the speaking part to Persephone in the 80’s for a Balanchine reunion, and King Gesar is also full of endless narration.  “Drummy” rhythms lumber endlessly. There’s no swing or light here, only tedium.

It’s a relief to return to a solo piano piece played by Serkin. The nine short movements of Garland (1994) add up to over eleven minutes. There’s something rather casual and extemporaneous about the whole work. The fifth movement is particularly nice, an elaboration of some Bill Evans chords.

It’s unclear how much of The Five Great Elements (1995) was finished by the composer. At this point, only the short “Fire” has been recorded. Lieberson enjoys the resources of his biggest ensemble, but his chamber music in this style is more attractive. The wind machine is possibly gratuitous, but there’s a good ending, where the flame is suddenly snuffed out.

The Ocean that has no West and no East (1997) is best explained by the composer.

The Ocean that has no West and no East is a short elegy in memory of Tōru Takemitsu, who died last year. I first met Tōru in Boston in 1983 and found him charming, inquisitive about life, gentle in character, and also slightly mysterious. Later on, I conducted a number of his pieces. One piece in particular, How Slow the Wind, reminded me of Gagaku music in that the conductor has to breathe with the orchestra in order for the subtle beauty of the music to manifest.

I spent the most time with Tōru in Tokyo when I was invited to be a guest composer at his Music Today Festival in 1987. Peter Serkin and composer Oliver Knussen were also there, as was cellist Fred Sherry. Though he was the senior of our group by many years, Tōru stayed up with us every night and literally drank us under the table. I was confirmed in my impression of Tōru as a person who lived his life like a traditional Zen poet.

The title “The Ocean that has no West and no East” comes from a line Tōru wrote in a postcard that Peter Serkin received some days after Tōru died. The complete line read, “I am enjoying swimming in the Ocean that has no West and no East.”

Lieberson’s lovely meditation became the title track of a valuable Peter Serkin CD.

Slightly longer but humbler in size than “Fire,” Free and Easy Wanderer (1998) has plenty of those luminous Lieberson atonal chords. A repeating chatter provides an occasional rhythmic reference, a nice counterpoint to the general pointillist and abstract nature of the piece.

Compared to something likeConcerto for 4 Groups of Instruments, Free and Easy Wanderer is an easy listen—for me, anyway!  If you aren’t disposed to like modernist music, Free and Easy Wanderer may still be too hard.

With Horn Concerto (1998), Lieberson takes the accessibility of his music much further. The first movement is quite brilliant, a delightful romance featuring William Purvis darting and soaring next to a lightly-scored orchestra. The language has elements of Americana in it, so the result inevitably starts to come closer to someone like Samuel Barber. But it works very well.

Performers and public alike seem to enjoy the idea of “jazz” at a symphony concert. The second movement of Horn Concerto evokes the“big band” cliché.

Red Garuda (1999) is a bit pompous and lumbering in the King Gesar tradition. Paul Griffiths summarizes it well in his review: “Mr. Lieberson has left himself room for a real second piano concerto.”

Part of the problem of Gesar and Garuda is the emphasis on the heroic and military qualities in Tibetan tradition. For his next work, one of his greatest, Lieberson tosses all that out the window.

The Six Realms (2000) is all lyric and rhapsodic song, starting with the stomach-churning descent of “The Sorrow of the World.” “The Hell Realm” has a kind of Bartókian rage and virtuosity. After this madness the cello offers a quote of the main chromatic melody of Concerto for Piano, a motif heard several times throughout The Six Realms, especially when transitioning movements. “The Hungry Ghost Realm” offers a mysterious chorale in the strings. In “The Animal Realm,” the Concerto for Piano motif really gets a workout, with tubas and tubular bells pressed into awkward service. “The Human Realm” is mostly a dramatic recitativo for the soloist, although those lovely Lieberson chords come in to accompany near the end.

While the score says, “amplified cello,” I don’t perceive any amplification on this recording, and there are certainly no special electronic effects. The amplification must be just so the orchestra doesn’t need to hold back, like on the dense, brass-heavy climax of “The God Realm and the Hungry God Realm.” The quiet ending offers no real release of tension and sorrow.

This tremendous recording features transcendent Michaela Fukačová with the Odense Symphony Orchestra conducted by Justin Brown.

Piano Quintet (2001) is a much more mellow work, almost humorous at times. In some ways it resembles Tashi Quartet in style and melodic contour, although the comparison points up how much the composer has grown in twenty years.  There is also something in common with Horn Concerto.  Both have two concise movements with dashes of Americana, and both these works are meant to be played, not just recorded once and left for scholars.  Anthony Tommasini has done his part, giving it rave reviews in 2003, 2005, and 2007.

Lieberson’s first collaboration with Lorraine Hunt, the opera Ashoka’s Dream, is unrecorded, except for the dark “Triraksha’s Aria” from a 2009 Wigmore Hall recital with Roger Vignoles. The opera as a whole got excellent reviews.

After she became Hunt-Lieberson, Lieberson set five Rilke Songs (2001) for his wife with piano and five Neruda Songs (2005) for his wife with orchestra. The Neruda Songs have been one of most celebrated new works American classical music in recent memory.  Read Alex Ross (who also wrote the liner notes for the Nonesuch album), Jeff Lunden at NPR, and the long interview by Frank J. Oteri at New Music Box after the work won the Grawemeyer Award.

There’s already another commercial version of Neruda Songs by Kelley O’Connor with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. O’Connor is a wonderful singer, and it is good no one waited too long to start making other recordings of something that many would regard as “Lorraine’s piece.” If it is truly great music, we need many interpretations. The overall approach of the new recording is refreshingly less languorous and sumptuous then the classic.

Neruda Songs takes an occasional foray into Latin rhythms. Of course, there’s a noble tradition of “sultry” in concert music, with Bizet, Debussy and Ravel on one side of the border and Granados, Albéniz, and De Falla on the other.

Still, I prefer Rilke Songs. There are two traversals by Hunt-Lieberson and Serkin, live and in the studio. Both are wonderful: These are Lieberson’s greatest collaborators working together on one of his greatest works.

Lieberson credited his wife with giving him a new understanding of vocal writing. Among the works examined in John C. Levey’s valuable doctoral dissertation “Technique and Evolution in Peter Lieberson’s Three Songs and Rilke Songs is “Stiller Freund” from Rilke Songs.  In a footnote, Levey explains,

The major-tenth leap in m. 39 is the largest in the song, and nearly the largest in the collection (surpassed only by a perfect-eleventh in the first song). There is a similar ascending major-tenth at the conclusion of “O ihr Zärtlichen” (m. 46), which differs in pitch by only a semitone. It is impossible to tell from the score, but these intervals are especially well-situated for Hunt-Lieberson’s voice, and it would appear that Lieberson has reserved them for moments of particular dramatic import.

Rilke Songs is absolutely tonal music, but its tonality is seen through the unforced prism of a composer who had mastered atonal chromaticism for over thirty years. An exceptionally obvious example is at the start of number five, “Blummenmuskel…,” where G minor is delicately colored by the rest of the aggregate.

The choice of Rilke is significant. At the end of the day,  Lieberson was a rich Westerner. He could do Tibetan, Latin, and jazzy, but those experiments work best when his modernist aesthetic mostly hides those appropriations.

With Rilke there’s no need to hide anything. For Lieberson, the tradition of chromatic German lieder is perfectly natural and naturally transcendent. If Hugo Wolf or Richard Strauss could have seen the score to Rilke Songs, I suspect they would have reached for pen and paper and started taking notes.

Update, 2016: The newest entry to the canon of recorded Peter Lieberson, Vol. 3 from Bridge, is excellent.

The Piano Concerto No. 3 (2003) is a return to form after the pompous Red Garuda, although there is still some obvious extra-musical influence, with movements directly inspired by poetic texts from Pablo Neruda, St. Francis of Assisi, and Charles Wright. While premiered by Peter Serkin, Steven Beck is on the recording. There are more passages of exposed solo piano than in either of the earlier concertos, so Beck really gets a chance to shine.

Truthfully there is something a little conventional about this work, which fits comfortably next to Bartók or even Prokofiev. Is Lieberson pulling our leg with the obvious angular fugue in the third movement? The big A major chord in the strings that opens the slow movement is another pleasingly surreal gesture. Still, Lieberson is in full command of the material and even when the rhythms are square, the argument moves forward smoothly.

The extensive liner notes by musicologist Matthew Mendez are unusually fine. Mendez offers the Walton Viola Concerto as a helpful cue when approaching Lieberson’s Viola Concerto (1992/2003). It’s a luxuriantly romantic work, a generous addition to the relatively sparse repertoire for violists. Lieberson could have a real genius for orchestral counterpoint, and the opening “Rhapsody” is simply ear candy from start to finish. The solo instrument’s low range is cosseted by a delicate web of strings and horns.

Like other late Lieberson movements at tempo, the “Scherzo” in the Viola Concerto has an almost alarmingly conventional cast rhythmically. However, the last movement has six minutes of the most gorgeous slow music imaginable, with viola rhapsodizing over chorales. As with the Horn Concerto, Samuel Barber comes to mind, especially when a brisk off-kilter unison line gathers the threads for a rambunctious finish, a tactic similar to the conclusion of the Barber Violin Concerto.

The Viola Concerto is an easy listen but must be a real workout for the soloist. Roberto Diaz effortlessly delivers the wide-ranging melodies with passionate lyricism; Scott Yoo and Odense are similarly polished and committed.

Update, 2020: This page now pairs with my commentary “Peter Serkin, In Real Time.”

Online Bibliography:

Lieberson’s own commentary/program notes at the G. Schirmer website

Lieberson, “Concept Becomes Experience: A Composer’s Journey”

Justin Davidson, “Accessing a Place of Shaggy Wildness”

John C. Levey, “Technique and Evolution in Peter Lieberson’s Three Songs and Rilke Songs

NY Times obit by Zachary Woolfe

Ross Bauer, “In Memoriam Peter Lieberson”