LIEBERMANN: Concertos for Piano and Orchestra: No. 1; No. 2. Album for the Young (excerpts)

by Walter Simmons

LIEBERMANN:  Concertos for Piano and Orchestra:  No. 1; No. 2.  Album for the Young (excerpts).  Lowell Liebermann conducting the BBC Scottish Orchestra; Stephen Hough, piano.  HYPERION CDA66966 [DDD]; 56:21.  Produced by Joanna Gamble, Nick Flower, and Andrew Keener.

Lowell Liebermann, Michael Torke, and Aaron Jay Kernis have emerged as perhaps the three most prominent of the crop of American composers still in their thirties.  Of the three, Liebermann is the most traditional and least identifiably American in his compositional approach.  Born in New York City, he earned a doctorate at the Juilliard School, where he studied with Diamond and Persichetti.  He is quite prolific, with nearly sixty opus numbers to his credit.  This new compact disc appears to be the most elaborate recorded presentation of Liebermann’s music thus far, offering two piano concertos as championed by the celebrated Stephen Hough. 

Both these concertos make splendid initial impressions.  The first, dating from the early 1980s, is a driving, propulsive work in what might best be described as the Bartok/Prokofiev vein.  Though its character is thus rather hard-edged and virile, the structure of the work is comfortable and easy to follow, with flashy pyrotechnics that are quite exciting.

The second concerto, dedicated to Stephen Hough, appeared less than ten years later.  This is a much warmer, more expansive work–half again as long as the first concerto, and in four movements, instead of three.  Here Prokofiev is the stylistic reference point more than Bartok.  (I should note that these names are mentioned only to place the music in a context for the reader — not to suggest obvious derivation or influence.  On the other hand, no listener who enjoys the concertos of those earlier masters will find Liebermann’s difficult to digest.)  Like the first concerto, the second is coherent, easy to fellow, and can be assimilated quickly.  Its finale brings to culmination prior motivic elements in a fervent lyrical apotheosis and virtuoso flourish that virtually requires thunderous applause to sound complete..  Compared by some critics to the Barber concerto, Liebermann’s Second clearly has “hit potential” (although, in truth, plenty of 20th-century concertos have “hit potential.”  Unfortunately, this doesn’t guarantee them any exposure because, while they may be available on CD, there is still no way to connect them to the ears of the many listeners who might enjoy them but don’t even know they exist.  FM radio stations that play classical music — at least in the New York metropolitan area where I live — rarelyplay even the most listener-friendly 20th-century orchestral music.  There is simply no hope for the future of classical music if works like this cannot even be heard.)  The handful of excerpts from Liebermann’s Album for the Young included as bonuses are lovely and most welcome.

Anyway, the real question is:  When music is this conventional and familiar in its overall content and syntax, what makes it special or unique?  This is a particular knotty aspect of the new-composer-evaluation-and-assimilation process that is often used by shallow critics as a means of glib, perfunctory dismissal (“we’ve heard it all before,” “the form has been exhausted,” “nothing new,” “sounds like warmed-over . . . “).  However, the rejoinder, “Maybe, but he does it in his own unique way,” suggests that the matter is really more complicated:  When a new compositional voice appears, its less individual aspects are quicker to be perceived than is the configuration of its uniqueness.  The more conventional the language, the truer this is.  Novelty is perceived only at the most superficial level, so that a composer whose individuality is apparent immediately often seems mannered, limited, and redundant upon greater familiarity with his output.  On the other hand, composers who use familiar materials in shaping an oeuvre unified by a coherent, consistent world-view revealed through a variety of formal manifestations are often initially dismissed as lacking “personality” or “originality,” until greater familiarity allows these constructs to be perceived. This is an aesthetic problem that makes the job of the critic — identifying a distinctive creative voice with something unique and important to say–more difficult than many would like to admit.

With the foregoing in mind, I submit my preliminary and tentative reactions to this music.  Both works are fun and easy to appreciate; their construction shows skill and concern; there is a real flair, an ease and confidence in their self-presentations that indicate an authentically musical voice.  On the other hand, I don’t yet glean the coherent, consistent world-view, the sense of something unique and important to say, noted in the previous paragraph.  And there is a “middle-of-the-road” quality to its mood and affect that makes the music seem a bit superficial, as if the composer wants to give us a good time without revealing too much of himself.  This makes the music a little less interesting to me, though others may feel differently.

Stephen Hough plays this music with total commitment, tremendous panache, and stunning virtuosity.  The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is adequate, although coordination with the pianist is not always precise.  Hough’s program notes devote a great deal of space to structural analyses of limited interest, while omitting some fairly necessary information.  For example, many of Liebermann’s works are cited, along with dates of composition, but no dates are provided for the concertos themselves.  Isn’t that strange?  The Concerto No. 1 was dedicated to Sorabji, but there is no explanation of the significance of this act of homage, nor of Sorabji’s importance to Liebermann.

I will be very interested to see how others react to this music, and to follow Liebermann’s subsequent development.