LIEBERMANN: Four Apparitions. Seven Nocturnes. Three Impromptus

LIEBERMANN Four Apparitions. Seven Nocturnes. Three Impromptus · David Korevaar (pn) · KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7548-2 HI (68:45)

Lowell Liebermann and his contemporaries Michael Torke and Aaron Jay Kernis are probably today’s leading American composers among the generation now in their early 40s. That Liebermann’s compositional style is the most traditional of the three is clearly apparent from this new Koch International release, entitled Lowell Liebermann: Piano Music, Volume I. The program offered here consists of four Apparitions, dating from 1985, seven Nocturnes composed individually during the period 1986-99, and three Impromptus, written in 2000. Previous works of Liebermann (see Fanfare 21:1 and 24:5) have struck me as more than competent in craftsmanship and pleasant in effect, but lacking a strongly individual character, displaying a range of expression that hovers a little too consistently over the middle-of-the-road.

Though the same reservations apply to the music offered here, for some reason I find them to be less of a liability in these works for solo piano. Written over the course of 15 years, these 14 character pieces share essentially the same language, a language clearly rooted in the familiar rhetoric of 19th- and early 20th-century piano music. The earlier Apparitions are a bit more harsh and gestural than the later pieces. The earlier of the Nocturnes are strongly rooted in the language of Chopin, as refracted through a later sensibility. The later ones display fewer reminiscences; No. 6 is especially beautiful. On the whole, the Nocturnes are improvisatory-some sound like actual improvisations, with passages that seem like empty “vamping,” among other, more inspired pages. The recent Impromptus are more fully satisfying. Liebermann’s treatment of these genres is highly fluent, revealing a deep familiarity with the music of Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, and Debussy. Drawing upon these stylistic precedents, he evokes a varied range of introspective moods and feelings with considerable sensitivity, but without ever venturing into any expressive realm that might be termed “extreme” or idiosyncratic. As such these piano pieces might be deemed comparable to some of the solo piano music of Samuel Barber-e.g., the Interludes, the Nocturne, and the late Ballade. Yet although the music is consistently appealing and absorbing, at no point does the listener have the sense of knowing just who Liebermann really is, i.e. his musical persona, beyond the most general characteristics. He may have one, but it hasn’t made itself known to me as yet. Reviewing this new release simultaneously with a new CD of music by Robert Muczynski led me to reflect on the latter’s pieces for solo piano. The two composers are not at all far apart stylistically, and cover roughly the same aesthetic turf. But despite a generally modest, understated temperament, Muczynski has a clearly defined identity, or persona, that provides a collective sense of expressive unity to his various pieces. It is this that I continue to miss in Liebermann’s work. True, one can enjoy music that lacks a unifying persona, but it is hard to view such a composer as an important figure.

Pianist David Korevaar, now on the faculty of the University of Colorado, Boulder, has been closely associated with Liebermann’s music since their student days at Juilliard. In addition to providing the program notes for the recording, he offers brilliant, sensitive, subtly nuanced performances of all the pieces at hand. I would expect that this music will appeal to the same listeners who enjoy the piano music of Samuel Barber.