I first encountered the music of the American composer, Lowell Liebermann through the excellent Hyperion recording by Stephen Hough (with Liebermann conducting) of his two piano concerti, Opp 12 and 36. The musical language of the first of these is rather angular (though not unpleasantly so) but by the time he came to write its successor Liebermann's style had developed in a more overtly romantic direction. This new symphony shows that he has travelled still further down that road, and with impressive results.
Written in 1999 to a commission for the Dallas orchestra (with whom he was then just beginning a three-year term as Composer in Residence) this symphony reveals a number of interesting traits. Liebermann is clearly very confident about working with large forces and about thinking in large spans. Furthermore he is a superb orchestrator and is also possessed of a genuine melodic gift. Last, but not least, both the works on this disc show that he is completely comfortable in working with traditional musical forms. More than that, he obviously respects those traditions (though I cannot be sure without a score, I fancy the last five chords of the symphony are a direct quotation of the end of Beethoven's Ninth symphony).
The symphony requires huge forces: triple wind; full brass; an enormous percussion section (deployed most imaginatively); harp; piano; celeste; organ and strings. In addition Liebermann employs a large mixed chorus and extra off-stage brass groups.
The work plays continuously but is cast in four very clearly defined movements (separately tracked on the CD). The choir is used mainly in the first and last movements. They are only briefly involved at the end of the second movement while the third movement, a richly expressive largo, is for orchestra alone.
The sung text is assembled from a number of poems by Walt Whitman. Liebermann thus becomes the latest in a long line of composers who have been inspired by Whitman. Indeed, the first words which the choir sings ('O, vast rondure, swimming in space') are the same ones used by Vaughan Williams at the start of the finale of his Sea Symphony. Your response to the symphony may be influenced by your feelings towards Whitman's verse. Some may find the imagery and rhetoric grandiose and overblown. My own experience, for what it is worth, is that I prefer to sing his poetry rather than to read it. Certainly Liebermann's chosen texts seem to have been taken to the collective heart of the Dallas Symphony Chorus for they sing magnificently. Their tone is full and well focused and they project most convincingly. Congratulations to them also on their superb diction. Delos print the text but this is scarcely necessary.
Praise too for Andrew Litton and his excellent orchestra. Recorded live in their home concert hall at the symphony's first performances, they offer a compelling and wholly committed account of the score. Liebermann must have been thrilled by such advocacy. Given that this is the recording of an 'Occasion' I'm just a touch regretful that Delos edited out applause at the end. In fact, there's no intrusive audience noise that I could detect. The recorded sound is quite magnificent. An abundance of detail is audible and the engineers also present a very convincing sound picture of the overall ensemble with an impressive dynamic range which comfortably accommodates the several huge climaxes.
So what do I feel about this new symphony after several hearings? Ambivalent, I think. I believe it's too soon to judge whether it will stand the test of time and I do fear that the large forces required may inhibit future performances. What I can say unequivocally, however, is that I have enjoyed the piece enormously. Repeated hearings reveal many felicitous touches, especially in the orchestration, and there is a strong melodic foundation and rhythmical impulse to the work. I find it very convincing and imaginative and would urge others to investigate it.
The disc is completed by a performance of Liebermann's Flute Concerto. This was commissioned by James Galway who premiered it in 1992. Galway himself has recorded the piece (for RCA, with Liebermann conducting). I have not heard that 1998 recording which, given the involvement of both Galway and the composer must be authoritative. However, I would be surprised if the earlier recording surpasses this newcomer.
The young American flautist, Eugenia Zuckerman has a lovely, limpid tone, which is well in evidence in the many lyrical passages (such as the opening, so reminiscent of Prokofiev, and the gorgeous slow movement, which she plays irresistably). The outer movements include a good number of more athletic passages, which clearly hold no terrors for her. She masters the many technical challenges with evident panache and is given alert and stylish accompaniment by Litton and his (much smaller) orchestra. This is a fresh, charming and most appealing work, which ought to be in the repertoire of every self-respecting flautist. Again the Delos engineers provide an exemplary recording.
One complaint. Delos' otherwise excellent documentation provides no information whatsoever about Miss Zuckerman. This is surely a most discourteous oversight and a black mark against an otherwise distinguished issue. Listeners wishing to know more about her can find a slightly out of date biography of her on the Delos web site (www.delosmus.com)
Despite this one blemish this is a disc which I enjoyed greatly and which I recommend strongly to listeners interested in tonal twentieth century music. In time we may find that the disc contains a major and lasting addition to American symphonic literature. I hope so.
Congratulations to Delos on a most interesting release. In
the 1980s they issued an important series of CDs of American symphonic
repertoire. It is to be hoped that this new disc marks the resumption
of such releases (the completion of their cycle of symphonies by Liebermann's
teacher, David Diamond, would be especially welcome). I certainly hope
they will record more of Liebermann's music. It would be interesting
to hear his First Symphony (1982) and the booklet notes mention two
more new works, a Violin Concerto and a Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini.
Let us hope that Delos may soon bring these works to a wider public.
See also reviews by Marc Bridle and