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CD: MDT AmazonUK AmazonUS

Peter LIEBERSON (b. 1946)
Red Garuda (Piano Concerto No. 2) (1999) [24:56]
Rilke Songs (1997-2001) [18:23]
Bagatelles (1985) [10:21]
Piano Quintet (2003) [14:16]
Peter Serkin (piano); New York Philharmonic/James Conlon (Concerto); Lorraine
Hunt Lieberson (mezzo-soprano) (Songs); Orion String Quartet (Quintet)
rec. Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, New York City, 18-20 November 2004 (Concerto); Mastersound Astoria, New York, 8 August 2005 (Songs); Masonic Temple, Vanguard Recording Studios, New York City, December 1985 (Bagatelles); Theater C, Performing Arts Center, State University of New York at Purchase, 18 May 2007 (Quintet). Texts and translations of the Songs are included. DDD
BRIDGE 9317 [68:20]

Experience Classicsonline

The common element in this compilation of Lieberson works is pianist Peter Serkin, for whom the composer wrote three of the four pieces here. Though recorded at different times and different venues, one would not suspect this from the consistency of the sound. The earliest recording, that of the Bagatelles, was reissued from New World Records. The other performances appear here for the first time. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson recorded the Rilke Songs earlier (2004) with Peter Serkin in a live performance that appears on another Lieberson compilation, including the Six Realms for Amplified Cello and Orchestra and the Horn Concerto (Bridge 9178). The later one, here, is a studio recording that adds nothing to the earlier performance and is really very similar to it. If you already have that recording, the main interest here is in the Concerto and Piano Quintet.
As Peter Lieberson writes in the notes to this CD, his Second Piano Concerto was inspired by the Eastern mythological bird called the Garuda. It is a large bird that flies continuously, and the composer envisioned the bird flying over different landscapes. The work’s opening “evokes a starry night before dawn…slowly the form of the bird emerges out of the darkness.” This introduction sounds rather Ravelian to me, with echoes of Ma Mère l’Oye or Daphnis et Chloé, with its own kind of impressionism, evoked by the sound of lower strings, horn, tubular bells and bass drum. The piano then enters as part of the texture rather than in a soloistic role, playing chords. After the tempo picks up in some kind of heavy, demented march, the piano role becomes much more virtuosic. Still, I find the work more concertante than concerto. Certainly the piano part is formidable, but not at all flashy. The contemporaneous Six Realms has the solo cello playing almost continuously throughout that work. Both works require the resources of a large orchestra, and the orchestra, especially the percussion, plays an important role in both. This is also true of Lieberson’s First Piano Concerto, a powerful and virtuosic work. Both Red Garuda and the earlier concerto were commissioned by Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony for Peter Serkin. Red Garuda, if anything, is a more lyrical work than its predecessor and, though it does not reveal its secrets readily, it has a great deal of substance and I would think lasting appeal. The work is conceived as a single, long movement, but is neatly divided into three contrasting sections of similar lengths. The first and last sections are more rhythmic and in faster tempi, while the middle third is slower and somewhat more static, with the piano primarily playing chords. In the last section, starting around 19:30, the piano part in high treble of the keyboard reminded me of Ligeti’s writing for the instrument. Then the brass have a field day before the work concludes with piano and high percussion in a sort of throwaway ending. One can assume that the performance here is authoritative. It certainly sounds terrific, as is the recorded sound.
The other pieces with piano are not as impressive. At least I could not appreciate them as much. There are three Bagatelles, with the following evocative titles: Proclamation, Spontaneous Songs, and The Dance. I did not find much in them that is memorable. The latest work on the disc, the Piano Quintet of 2003 was composed for the performers on this disc. It is divided into two movements. The first is marked “celebratory and joyful,” while the one begins as a slow “interlude” before moving into a fugue. The beginning of the work is very striking. It has an Eastern sound with pizzicato strings and piano. I found the very rhythmic movement to be infectious. However, the slower interlude was too brief before launching into the fugue. This movement did not hold the same level of interest for me that the first movement did. Again the authoritative performance is all one could ask.
Finally, there is the studio recording of the Rilke Songs. For me, at least, Lieberson’s most inspired music is that which he composed for his late wife, these songs and the later Neruda Songs. As Lieberson notes, his mother, whose first language was German, would often quote Rilke, and Lieberson has been drawn to this poetry from that time on. The Rilke Songs are settings of the five Sonnets to Orpheus. Although not overtly love songs, Lieberson thought of them that way as he composed them for Lorraine. They are beautiful and lyrical, especially the first, “O ihr Zärtlichen” and last “Stiller Freund.” Overall, I still prefer the more overt emotionality and romantic ardor of the later Neruda Songs with their wonderful orchestral accompaniment, but the Rilke Songs are also typical of the composer at his best. I compared both the live version from 2004 on the other disc with this newer studio one and found very little difference. Both are outstanding, and Peter Serkin’s pianism is impeccable. It will be interesting to hear other mezzos in this music to see how anyone can compare with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, a difficult if not impossible act to follow.
If I had to choose between this disc and the other of the Rilke Songs, I would most likely take that one because I find more of interest in the Six Realms than I do in the Red Garuda and because that disc also contains the Horn Concerto. However, I am glad that I do not have to make the choice, because there is certainly more than enough that is interesting and thought provoking on the present disc. Lieberson’s music, while generally atonal, is approachable and very distinctive. Recommended.
Leslie Wright


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