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 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!”

Lieberson died a year ago. While most of the obituaries focused on his famous wife and the Neruda Songs that became her valediction, I had automatically bought every new Lieberson recording as it came out for years.

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 (the early one is on CRI) and an anecdote in Justin Davidson’s lovely memorial. This kind of hardcore uncommunicative piece does 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 seems to find his own voice.

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.

1959 was also an astonishing year for jazz on Columbia. Goddard Lieberson would have signed off on Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue with Bill Evans and Charles Mingus’s Ah Um, but as far as I know he had little to do with either of those masterworks. The most familiar 1959 Goddard Lieberson jazz story is how he pushed for Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” to be released as a single.

In this era Goddard Lieberson also documented all of Stravinsky’s music under the composer’s or Robert Craft’s baton, including masterful late twelve-tone works like Agon, Movements, and Requiem Canticles.

Naturally, his son Peter credited Davis/Evans and late Stravinsky as influences, and Accordance might be seen as the result of this mix. (Perhaps the odd-meters of Brubeck are in there, too.)

Accordance has some “Third Stream”-ish aspects, but Lieberson leaves out drums, thus freeing his “jazz” rhythms from the weight of that kind of appropriation. It’s mostly the harmony that suggests jazz: a resonant bouncing harmony that clusters 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. There aren’t any really obvious tunes or returns, but there are many repeating cells and short melodies. A few passages seem to reference some of the hypnotic sections of Quartet for the End of Time, the work the chamber group Tashi was formed to perform.

Not everything is successful. The “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.

Tashi Quartet still has some great moments. The highlight is the fourth movement, 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.

Amazingly, neither the Times nor The New Yorker were done with the Concerto: 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.” The latter focuses mainly on the anxieties of a New York premiere. The only outsized accolade comes at the finish from an unimpeachable source: “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 even look strikingly similar on the back photo of the New World disc.) Serkin’s poetic imagination seems to really get 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 best reason to write high modernism for a big ensemble is to enjoy disunity, and the forward motion in the Concerto has everything to do with 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!” An exaggeration, sure, but there’s no doubt that when improvising under high-stress conditions, I reach for some sounds heard there first.

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 really 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.

(A different view of the Concerto is offered by Ross Bauer at NewMusicBox. “The piece, stunning as it is, isn’t completely successful. The second movement, however, has some of the most beautiful moments I’ve heard in any music since Brahms, moments that never fail to produce a chill.”)

Right around the time of Peter Lieberson’s debut at Avery Fisher Hall, his mother Vera Zorina, a muse of George Balanchine, published her memoir, Zorina. It’s not a good read for Peter Lieberson fans as Zorina seems to think her life was over once she married Goddard Lieberson and became a mother. Peter Lieberson is barely mentioned in the main body of the text: indeed, the fact that Peter is a composer is not mentioned at all. Interesting family!

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

There’s no digital version of Lalita: Chamber Variations (1984), you’ve got to own the brilliant Speculum Musicae LP A Fifteenth Anniversary Album. Charles Wuorinen’s masterpiece “Spinoff” has been re-issued, but Lalita and Seymour Shifrin’s intense The Nick of Time remain in limbo; let’s hope they aren’t forgotten entirely.

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 movement one, and the gathering of energetic chords toward the end as the concert toms roil and toil.

My introduction to Lieberson was the 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.

The question is, how do your phrases go next to each other? Sure, there is 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.

Unfortunately, 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. If I’m counting correctly, it’s the only one of seven orchestral works (that isn’t a concerto) to have a complete recording. In name, approachable size and clear ideas, Drala reminds me 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.

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Of course, if you are 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 too great.

The conductor Oliver Knussen and the Cleveland Orchestra can’t really be blamed: in fact they do a good job. It’s the composer who is at fault here, thinking that just because he has had a private, powerful, folkloric rhythmic experience, he can expect all the members of an orchestra get on that same page.

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

Adès’s Asyla has a successful folkloric rhythmic movement, “Ecstasio.” But it’s not a private or undulating folklore like Tibetan or Hungarian: most of the younger members of the orchestra would have danced in a club to straight up-and-down techno. For anyone who hasn’t, no real rhythmic sophistication past monotonous metronomic accuracy is required.

Appropriating techno gives Adès a flat, non-profound surface with which to have perverted fun, 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.

The greatest master of Eastern-inspired spiritual transcendence in Western music was John Coltrane, who played it on his horn and led his bands in works like A Love Supreme, Kulu Sé Mama, and Meditations.

Lieberson liked to name-check jazz in his interviews, but he never mentions a jazz drummer. Steve Reich constantly thanks Kenny Clarke, and of course Elvin Jones is never far from his thoughts, either. Reich also formed a band to develop his folklore. This is the right situation for appropriating non-European rhythmic concepts.

It’s also perfectly acceptable to deny folkloric rhythm, of course. Conlon Nancarrow’s piano rolls come to mind. And while the unchanging, pointillistic surfaces of Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, or other relentlessly hardcore modernists may get exhausting, they are free from appropriating other rhythmic traditions in a superficial manner. They never tread where they haven’t earned the right to go.

Navigating the issue of rhythmic appropriation will prove to be the main issue for 21st-century classical music.

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 sounds like 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.  Here Lieberson appropriates a rhythmic tradition in just the right way, in this case Stravinsky’s Agon. Raising the Gaze is pure ear candy as the flexible ensemble dances around in strange geometry. Lieberson says, “I composed Raising the Gaze quickly, with the feeling of executing a set of brush strokes in thick black ink,” which of course is Agon-era stuff, too, that’s 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 ensemble is similar to Accordance, and I suspect that my strong attraction to these two Lieberson chamber pieces is partly due to this particular group of musicians.

Raising the Gaze:  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 – Wim Vos, percussion.  Accordance: Pameijer, Sparnaay, Verhagen, and Vos (on vibes and glock) along with Marieke Schut, oboe – Peter Smithhuijzen, bass – Neik de Vente, piano – Ernestine Stoop, harp.  Thank you!

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.

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.” Again: interesting family! (The upscale and talented New Yorkers of J. D. Salinger or The Royal Tenenbaums comes to mind.)

At the beginning of Elegy, the violin and piano play separately as much as together. When they finally seriously join forces (4’30’) an orchestral texture is suggested by how both instruments play melody and accompaniment. The return of a soaring tune (6’) gives me goosebumps. It’s a delicious seven minute work that should be at violin recitals everywhere. The recording by Frank Almond and Brian Zeger is excellent.

The next work, King Gesar (1991) is the nadir of Lieberson’s output. Perhaps the circumstances provoked a self-destructive impulse: it’s the only Lieberson piece for Sony Classical, the big-money development of Goddard Lieberson’s other child, Columbia Records. With this platform, Peter Lieberson has not just the biggest American record deal he could conceivably have, but the highest-profile Sony Classical artists at his command, Emanuel Ax and Yo-Ya Ma, not to mention Peter Serkin, the french hornist William Purvis, and bass trombonist David Taylor.

It’s unfortunate that somewhere along the line no one said to Peter Lieberson, “Hey, you don’t want to do this.” King Gesar has sunk without a trace since the CD was released, and this obscurity is totally justified. The narration, which never lets up, is bad enough. (Admittedly, this may just be a blind spot: I’d vote to perform Stravinsky’s Persephone without narration. Perhaps significantly, Lieberson helped his mother learn the speaking part to Persephone in the 80’s for a Balanchine reunion.) My prejudice against narration aside, King Gesar is a perfect example of wrong-headed appropriation. Just because Lieberson liked these Tibetan myths didn’t give him carte blanche to take them on. The result is not transcendent, but pompous. “Drummy” rhythms lumber endlessly. There’s no swing or light here, only tedium.

King Gesar was the next major commercial record of a Lieberson piece after Concerto for Piano. It should have been Drala, Elegy, Raising the Gaze, and Tashi Quartet instead.

Of course I might be wrong about all of this. Maybe everyone connected with King Gesar thought it was great.

At any rate, the failure of King Gesar didn’t stop Lieberson from writing another big piece for spoken word and orchestra, Remembering JFK (An American Elegy) (2010), one of his last pieces. It’s narrated by the former star movie actor Richard Dreyfuss, who is now big on civics and masonry. All too often these kind of supposedly sincere tributes turn into a pretentious money grab.

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. Garland concludes Serkin’s disc In Real Time, which also has the second recording of the Bagatelles and the three Fantasy Pieces. The whole record is really great, especially the title track by Alexander Goehr and Berio’s Feuerklavier.

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 probably 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 another great Serkin recital, this time on Koch, containing also the Lieberson Piano Fantasy and works by Wolpe, Knussen, Webern, Wuorinen, Messiaen, and of course Takemitsu, another composer Serkin has a particularly magic touch with. I remember a Serkin concert at Zankel from the mid-2000s:  Bach’s Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother was read uncertainly from a score and then the hefty Takemitsu portion was perfect; the piano couldn’t have been played any better.

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 Concerto 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 that features 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.

I’m less enthralled with the second and final movement, which has the kind of cliché “big band” writing all populist American classical composers seem to have to stub their toe on sometime. Performers and public alike seem to enjoy the idea of “jazz” at a symphony concert.

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 and conjures a soul in torment instead.

There isn’t an appropriated or lumbering rhythm in The Six Realms (2000). It is all lyric and rhapsodic song, starting with the stomach-churning descent of the opening phrases 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.  The Piano Quintet it is short enough to fill out program with this instrumentation. 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 I’m glad 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 already. 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 simply terrific.

The Piano Concerto No. 3 (2003) is a return to form after Red Garuda, although there is still some obvious extra-musical influence: the movements were directly inspired by poetic texts by 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 then 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 excellent. 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 on all sides by a 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 I suspect it is 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.

There are now six CDs of essential listening for Peter Lieberson fans. At least some of his important music remains to be recorded, but the best of what is commercially available makes an indisputable case for Lieberson as one of the great American composers.

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”