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Peter LIEBERSON (1946-2011)
Piano Concerto No. 3 (2003) [27:01]
Viola Concerto (1992/2003) [28:52]
Steven Beck (piano); Roberto Diaz (viola)
Odense Symphony Orchestra/Scott Yoo
rec. Carl Nielsen Hall, Odense, Denmark, 19-21 December 2012 (Piano Concerto), 17-19 December 2012 (Viola Concerto) DDD<
BRIDGE 9412 [55:59]

Bridge Records designate this CD as Volume 3 of the Music of Peter Lieberson. The others are Bridge 9178, containing the Rilke Songs (live recording), The Six Realms for cello and orchestra, and the Horn Concerto, and Bridge 9317, containing Red Garuda (Piano Concerto No. 2), Rilke Songs (in a different, studio recording), Bagatelles for piano, and Piano Quintet. Those discs did not contain volume numbers, so one can hope now that there will be further instalments of Lieberson's very individual and attractive music.

I reviewed the second disc of the series here and found the composer's Second Piano Concerto a more lyrical, impressionistic work than his earlier piano concerto, both of which were commissioned by Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony for Peter Serkin. Now we have Lieberson's third and last piano concerto that combines elements of both previous works in the genre with craggy, even violent passages typical of the first concerto contrasting with lyrical ones. Lieberson likewise composed his last piano concerto for Peter Serkin, but this time for the centennial of the Minnesota Orchestra. It was premiered by Serkin and that orchestra under Oliver Knussen. I had not heard of Steven Beck before, but he clearly has the chops to conquer the concerto and the Odense Symphony under Scott Yoo accompany well.

The Piano Concerto No. 3 has three distinct movements. Unlike its predecessors, each of its movements is inspired by a literary work and taken together are "independent in their expressive aims and harmonic bases", according to Matthew Mendez's extensive notes in the CD booklet. Another noticeable difference in this concerto is the use of extended passages for the solo piano, even quasi-cadenzas. The first movement is entitled Leviathan, taken from a poem by Pablo Neruda; the second is Canticle from St. Francis of Assisi's "Canticle of the Sun"; the third, a Rondo from Charles Wright's "Dog Creek Mainline". One does not need to know these references to appreciate the concerto on purely musical terms. The first movement takes off like a rocket, but is not as violent as the equivalent movement of the Piano Concerto No. 1. As in both earlier concertos, brass and percussion also play a major role here, but later there is a string passage that evokes the mood of the Neruda Songs in its Romantic atmosphere. The movement ends quietly and rather spookily. The second movement picks up where the first left off, but is more lyrical and even tonal. Mendez describes it as a "song without words of the utmost delicacy and restraint". Lieberson effectively employs solo winds and brass in the movement with beautiful horn, trumpet, and oboe solos. Again the movement ends quietly, while the last movement bursts in with piano chords and syncopations that evoke jazz. The trombone plays a notable role here and there is a touch of Broadway, but the brass interjections and rhythmic patterns also evoke Stravinsky. There is a build-up to a march-like ending and the music just stops on an unresolved C dominant seventh chord. The musicians could have made that clearer or more decisive, but perhaps it was done as Lieberson intended. At any rate, it leaves a rather unsettled feeling at the end of the work. Overall, though, I find this concerto the most attractive of the three, with Red Garuda close behind.

The earlier Viola Concerto has an interesting history. Lieberson initially composed it in 1992 in two movements for Steven Dann, who was principal violist of the Toronto Symphony at the time. It was premiered in that form by those artists and later by the San Francisco Symphony's then-principal violist Geraldine Walther, after which the San Francisco critic Joshua Kosman complained of " a big empty spot at the center of the piece", according to Mendez. Apparently agreeing with this criticism, Lieberson in 2003 composed an additional movement that became the work's finale. The concerto's three movements are Rhapsody, Scherzo and Adagio-Allegro, respectively. As one might expect, the Viola Concerto is a more songful piece than the piano work. It may not have the imposing stature of the piano concertos, but is very attractive all the same. Although the first movement begins with loud brass chords, the viola almost immediately takes over with a long-limbed melody. As Mendez states, there is something of the Walton mode in Lieberson's treatment of the viola. The viola plays practically throughout and has a long cadenza-like solo in the middle of the movement. There are also loud brass passages to contrast with the prevailing mood. The Scherzo begins as if the orchestra is warming up - a collage of sounds with much flute twittering - before the viola enters. In this movement the viola has a really virtuosic part, rhythmic and jazzy, before ending softly. The third movement begins with a sombre wind chorale before the viola enters with an austere chromatic theme, later becoming dramatic with brass punctuations. Particularly moving in the middle of the movement is a high viola part accompanied by the horns. The conclusion of the work in a way recalls that of the piano concerto in that it ends loudly on a short chord - this time in C major. I am not familiar with the work's dedicatee, but Roberto Diaz, a violist of international reputation, is a distinguished exponent of the piece. He is now President and CEO of the Curtis Institute of Music and was formerly principal violist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. His sterling performance is well complemented by that of the Odense orchestra and its conductor. The recorded sound for both this and the Piano Concerto No. 3 is big and bold, as befits the music.

Peter Lieberson's reputation lay primarily in his vocal output, especially the songs he wrote for his second wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. They are undoubtedly the most accessible, having the most immediate appeal. Nonetheless, Lieberson's concertos are seminal works and deserve further exposure. Bridge has done a real service in providing these excellent recordings of his oeuvre. It is hoped that there will be additional volumes in this valuable series.

Leslie Wright