To be honest, my first experience of Lieberson’s art (Red Garuda) was decidedly disappointing. Piano Concerto No. 2, valiantly done up by pianist Peter Serkin, the New York Philharmonic and conductor James Conlon, was all colour and little substance. The mythical bird most certainly took sonic flight, aided and abetted by a marvel of orchestration (notably the percussion, with only a covey of trumpets raising any ensemble eyebrows). After an impressionistic opening, the Fire variation was loaded with power, the Water variation added balance before the Earth/Wind variation (Can you see the wind?) brought everything back to earth. A cinematic treatment à la Samsara (cross-reference below) would be a pleasure at every turn.
It’s hard to imagine a more compassionate reading of these Rilke Sonnets to Orpheus than the five excerpts here, set by Lieberson, sung with art and passion by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and accompanied (a full partner indeed) by Serkin. What was missing in the previous concerto is in ample evidence here: a marvellous sense of ebb and flow underscoring the intent of the texts throughout. Unforgettable are Lorraine Hunt’s word colourings (e.g., “eternally smile”; “no longer yourself”; “We violent ones remain a little longer”. Serkin is with her every step of the way, artfully coming into his own in “Part Two: V”. The frequent “wind” references here are much stronger, subtler than in Red Garuda. The composer is most certainly in his element.
No mere Bagatelles (3), in these, Serkin revels in “Proclamation”, fully in control of its assertive power, always leading never following. “Spontaneous” belies its title; the music very controlled as it gradually evolves, yet feels much more harnessed than free. “The Dance” is infused with joyful optimism, much power to share and burn, artfully balanced with compelling quietude.
Piano Quintet (2003), the newest composition on this disc is by far the most satisfying. The five proponents readily merge into one musical voice. From the opening unison in “Part I: Celebratory and Joyful”, the abundant energy, colour and rhythmic vitality feels a sure antidote to COVID-19. Let’s just say it: violist Steven Tenenbom’s interventions most surely rock!
“Part II:” opens with a moody, reflective “Interlude” (ideally balancing the opening frame) before the “Poco Meno” offers a dialogue filled with arid lines and their counterparts. Begging the question: “Who will have the last word?” Nothing better than a brief “Fugue” to answer that rhetorical question (once again cheering on Tenenbom as he makes his points), only to have the collective art relax into a fond farewell, ready to “argue” other ideas on another day.
The extensive program notes by Matthew Mendez, paint a large portrait as to the literary influences that he believes permeate “Leviathan” (Pablo Neruda), “Canticle” (St. Francis of Assisi) and “Rondo” (Charles Wright’s “Dog Creek Mainline”), are interesting but don’t matter a whit to those of us who prefer to evaluate music as written: What Brahms read or didn’t, is of no interest to me.
Judged only on its aural merits, “Leviathan overflows with copious amounts of anger, mystical colourations and a few moments of reprieve. Conductor Scott Yoo leads an impassioned performance between pianist Steven Beck’s welcome moment of “seul” calm. “Canticle” releases a much-wanted repose with a poignant oboe adding to the few moments of emotional warmth. “Rondo” displays Beck’s consummate technique even if the music is all dressed up with nowhere to go. Savour the colour; substance awaits another day.
The Viola Concerto decidedly feels like a work perpetually in progress. The first two movements, written for violist extraordinaire Steven Dann in 1992, was felt, by some, to be less than the full meal. The 2003 addition (“Adagio; Allegro”) most certainly fleshes the work out, perhaps an ode to the composer’s viola-playing wife Lorrie (1954-2006), but it is the music, not the narrative that we are left to judge.
The opening “Rhapsody” most certainly fulfills its titular promise. It’s a compelling and compassioned essay from the git-go. Violist Roberto Diaz most convincingly “sings” his wide-ranging lines, making the movement feel more like an extended conversation than a soloist with accompaniment. His cadenza is mesmerizing followed by a few “Scheherazade” hints that speak to musical globalization.
The “Scherzo” is appropriately playful, and after the birds and brass have their say, ignites the viola to still greater heights. A few hints of “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk” make way for the ensuing busyness and perpetual drive—replete with some fun slides! The next cadenza is rollicking and imaginative.
Yoo, does a masterful job of keeping everything together: the dark, moody, “Adagio” paves the way for a passionately soaring viola, before the final “Allegro” spills over with energy and full-bore band that, with Diaz, race to the double bar fuelled by a full-court pass that most certainly scores. JWR