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Rolf LIEBERMANN (1910-1999)
Furioso for Orchestra (1947); Geigy Festival Concerto (1958)*; Media-Monolog (1990) ***; Les Echanges (Symphonie) (1962) arr.; for 7 percussionists by Seigfried Fink (1971); Concerto for Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra (1954) **
Alfons Greider (percussion) *
NDR Bigband/Simon Nabatov **
Rachael Tovey (soprano) ***
Darmstadt choir - women’s voices
Bremen Philharmonic Orchestra/Gunter Neuhold
Recorded July 2001 during concerts and sessions at the Die Glocke, Bremen
NAXOS 8.555884 [64.32]

This CD has been to me, at least, quite a revelation: five works, all astonishingly different, by a composer, I’m ashamed to say, was unknown to me before. Each piece is distinctive and each is extraordinarily original. It has been a fascinating journey listening to these works, but to understand them further we should begin with the composer’s biography. Liebermann was born in Zurich where at first he studied law and later at the music conservatory. In the 1940s he wrote songs and worked for Swiss Radio. He later moved to Hamburg. From 1959 to 1973 he worked in Paris at the Opera. He has connections with America and American music and was always at the forefront of developments being also associated with Darmstadt. His music reflects his international background and cosmopolitan leanings.

Let’s take each piece in turn. The title of the opening piece will not let you down because ‘Furioso’ it most certainly is. Premiered at Darmstadt in 1947 it is a moto perpetuo in ternary form with a quieter middle section. The loud ostinatos and syncopations of its outer sections bring John Adams’ ‘Short ride in a fast machine’ to mind. This most un-Darmstadt, I think, at least by reference to the Darmstadt one has come to understand through the works of Stockhausen and Boulez. It makes a good start and it is recorded with immediacy and clarity, as are most of the other works.

The ‘Geigy’ Concerto is a fun piece. It was commissioned by the chemical firm Geigy and is really a concerto for snare drum and orchestra. It has an intriguing inspiration. Basle is a city with which Leibermann was associated in the 1950s. I will quote from the booklet: "on the first Sunday after Lent at four o’clock in the morning to the sound of drums and pipes, different groups go through the city with lanterns. It was Liebermann who first gave the snare drum a solo part in a symphonic work" (perhaps Nielsen’s 5th does not count in this context). The notes continue "at the beginning the folksong ‘Basel an mym rhy’ is heard depicting a still, sleeping city. The call of the watch is the first entry of the solo drum … The church clock strikes and the drummer plays his morning signal", a virtuoso solo which strikes up from nowhere. The third movement (there is no break between movements) quotes Basle’s so-called Arabi-March. Then a retreat is sounded by the drummer before other traditional Swiss melodies and marches end the piece. It is all over in twelve minutes.

The next work is the ‘Media-Monologue’ with a text by Gedicht von Ursula Hass. This is stylistically the most challenging work on the disc; in a sense the most old fashioned although the most recent. Being an atonal expressionist work in German I have to say that Schoenberg’s ‘Ewartung’ came to mind. In the writing for female chorus, especially the rhythmic spoken passages under an orchestral backdrop, it recalls late Stravinsky, possibly the ‘Requiem Canticles’. Other works might also be recalled but this is a powerful piece with a particularly arresting start. At twenty-three minutes this is just the right length. Anyway it makes a total contrast with the rest of the programme. Soprano, Rachael Tovey is absolutely on top of this demanding score. The choir however is disappointingly recessed … or are they deliberately off-stage. I’m not quite sure and nothing in the booklet notes offers an explanation.

The three minute Symphony ‘Les Echanges’ is performed here in an arrangement for seven percussionists and has another odd background story to tell having been written for the Swiss National Exhibition in Lausanne. Liebermann had the sound of the machines operating at the exhibition turned into a co-ordinated noise, as it were, the rhythms and tone colours then were recorded onto tape and this in turn was made into a proper piece played back for the audience. Siegfried Fink of the Wurzburg Percussion Ensemble arranged it for the seven percussionists.

Then comes the last piece. There is no question in my mind that I greatly enjoyed the Concerto (grosso) for Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra. There are eight quite brief movements beginning with an impressionistic orchestral opening then into a ‘Jump’ movement for the band. The two ensembles basically alternate until the final ‘Mambo’ when they raise a great and exciting climax together. Sometimes the transitions are helped by a theme passing noticeably from one to the other. Sometimes there is a sense of ‘a bit of this and now a bit of that’. Even so this is a very imaginative work. Incidentally, Liebermann deliberately bases the work on the idea of a concerto grosso.

I find it a wonder that Naxos continue to turn out such amazing discs as this for less than £5. There is an excellent essay by Eva Pinter and the full text of ‘Acquittal for Medea’ is given in German and nicely translated into English (sadly on a different page) by the ubiquitous Keith Anderson. This is music that offers the open-minded listener considerable interest and pleasure and at such a price should not be missed. However the only problem is, are you, like me, running out of shelf space?

Gary Higginson



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