Symphony No. 2, Op.67
Concerto for Flute and Orchestra
Eugenia Zukerman (flute)
Dallas Symphony Chorus
Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton
DELOS DE 3256, Full-Price
Although he has just turned 40 Lowell Liebermann has already established
a reputation as one of America's most performed and admired young composers.
Often attacked by American critics for his backward-looking style, which
owes more to the post-Romanticism of Samuel Barber and the later style of
Howard Hanson, he is nevertheless admired by audiences and conductors alike.
Hearing this magnificent symphony it is easy to understand why for it is
a work which recalls in equal measure the opulent textures of early Schoenberg
and the Richard Strauss tone poems. There are also the familiar Shostakovichian
motifs (timpani, brass and woodwind perorations and repetitions) which made
Liebermann's two piano concertos such memorable works. And yet, this is a
symphony which more than retains its own identity and 'voice', a work of
consummate craftsmanship which more than repays repeated listening.
This is both a choral and an organ symphony (although the obvious comparisons
are not contextually relevant). Liebermann's choral setting scales three
of the work's four movements and there is no mood of heroism or depth of
emotion to make a comparison with Beethoven's Ninth (or even Mahler's Second)
a viable one. Listen to the close of the titanic first movement from 8'10
to 9'10 and it is in fact Brahms' German Requiem which most springs
to mind as source material for this work. Listen closer to the dark string
textures in the first movement and it is again Brahms which emerges from
the shadows. Where Beethoven's Ninth had altogether more lofty ambitions,
Liebermann's Second Symphony is the paradigm of its intention: a celebratory
work written on the crest of a new Millennium.
Written for vast forces (double woodwind, quadruple or triple brass and off-stage
brass), as well as a chorus, the orchestra is used in part to respond to
the texts by Walt Whitman which the chorus sing. 'All is a procession/the
universe is a procession with measured and perfect motion', 'Alternate light
and day and the teeming spiritual darkness'. Liebermann's music generates
exactly this response - the rhapsodic invocation of a prophetically natural
tapestry of martial wit and joyousness which heralds an all-embracing vision
totally in keeping with the ecstatic lyricism and poetry of the setting.
The most lyrical and reflective music is actually that without chorus - the
sublime third movement with its dark basses alluding to a chilling despondency.
This introspection is almost shattering - and indeed the two central climaxes
to this movement are transfigured from the simplest germs, and yet have a
cumulative power which remains unforgettable once heard. When we get to the
final movement the exuberance of the mood is reflected by Liebermann returning
to Brahms' Requiem (2'05 to 2'30). This finale is masterfully written
- the fugato a particular triumph as it builds in volume and intensity towards
its climax - the jubilation of the closing pages somehow confirming the
atmospheric 'swimming in space' and joyousness of the text.
Written for Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for the orchestra's
centennial season Liebermann's Second Symphony was first performed in February
2000 (and, according to Litton when I
interviewed him, relayed live over the Internet via the Orchestra's website)
to considerable public acclaim. This performance recorded before (and during)
that premiere is as impassioned as one would expect with playing and singing
that is often lifted way above the ordinary by the sheer dedication of all
concerned. The recording is extremely transparent and well focused with voices
and orchestra caught in a glowing bloom. It is certainly the finest American
symphony I have heard since Corigliano's AIDs inspired First.
Lowell Liebermann's Flute Concerto has been recorded three times previously
and was commissioned by James Galway and first performed by him in November
1992. An unashamedly 'Romantic' work it seems, to this critic, to lack the
sheer brilliance and spikiness of both the First and Second Piano Concertos,
virtuosic though the flute part is (notably in the tarantella-like third
movement which recalls Prokofiev). Classically proportioned, with single
woodwind, the work is deftly structured and certainly one of the few flute
concertos written in the last century that can be deemed a 'masterpiece'.
Eugenia Zukerman is an impassioned soloist - whether it be in the arcing
opening melody, the serenely whispered chants in the second movement or the
astonishing prestissimo coda which concludes the work and in which
she achieves miracles of breathless precision.
For anyone who has yet to hear Lowell Liebermann's music this disc would
make an excellent starting point. Like the earlier disc of piano concertos
(available on Hyperion CDA 66966) it is a tour de force and highly
recommended. Can we now have a recording of Liebermann's opera, The Picture
of Dorian Gray?
David Wright is not so impressed:
I had great difficulty reviewing this disc. My copy was faulty. But I knew
both works and so this inconvenience did not hinder me greatly.
The Choral symphony is really an anachronism. It is the sort of music that
we have heard so many times before. It lacks originality and, curiously,
it has an English feel about it as if it were an early work of someone like
Hubert Parry. No disrespect to Parry but Liebermann's work is somewhat bland
and not very inspiring but I think that this may be partly due to a lousy
performance. There is no commitment and, in my experience, Andrew Litton
is not a good conductor. He conducted a Prom a few years ago and the only
notable thing was when he conducted that awful theme from that trashy TV
series Dallas and the horn player hit a gloriously wrong note. His conducting
is bland and it does not help a work that seems to be equally bland as well.
Lowell Liebermann is an American composer born in 1961 and has over 70 works
to his name so far which may suggest that his production rate is not commensurate
with quality. The Second Symphony dates from 1999 and sets words by Walt
Whitman. The orchestral forces include an organ and auxiliary brass consigned
in balconies. Think of it. Does this really serve a valid purpose?
The selected poems refer to man's relationship within the universe and the
music is rhapsodic and somewhat disjointed in character. As a contrast see
what the great Vaughan Williams did with Whitman texts in his Sea Symphony
and how the music flows in a natural progression. Karl Amadeus Hartmann was
also successful with setting this poet but Liebermann's efforts are not
TIME magazine wrote of this symphony that it was brazen and glittering,
now radiantly visionary, a resplendent choral symphony, the work of a composer
unafraid of grand gestures and open-hearted lyricism.
The work is competent but it is not great by any stretch of the imagination.
I have heard it many times and have yet to be impressed.
But perhaps I am being unfair. Inherent in all of us is the idea that choral
symphonies should be magnificent achievements full of many colours and riveting
The Flute Concerto fares much better and again
while it is not very original or noteworthy it is a good piece and, as far
as I can tell, well executed.
I fear that this is a disc that you will have to pass your own verdict upon.
For me the symphony was, and remains, a damp squib.