LIEBERMANN Symphony No. 2. Flute Concerto

LIEBERMANN Symphony No. 2. Flute Concerto – Andrew Litton, cond; Dallas SCh, O; Eugenia Zukerman (fl) – DELOS DE-3256 (60:48 &)

Lowell Liebermann continues to loom as one of the most promising traditionalist composers of his generation, although it is perhaps indicative of my own advancing age that I use the word “promising” in describing a composer who turns 40 this year. On the other hand, as I listen to this recent release the word’s appropriateness is reinforced in my mind by the detectable presence of an authentic musical sensibility, but not of a truly personal voice. (For my own and Stephen Ellis’s reactions to two of Liebermann’s piano concertos, see Fanfare 21:1, pp. 220-222.) Unlike many of today’s post-modernist composers who draw on post-romantic tonal rhetoric, the New York-born, Juilliard-trained Liebermann approaches his materials in a straightforward manner, without irony or other self-conscious devices that promote distancing or objectification. Yet as pleasant as his music may be, one wonders how this particular composer has succeeded in engaging the enthusiastic advocacy of so many of today’s leading conductors and soloists (e.g. Galway, Hough, Rostropovich, Levine, et al.), most of whom usually shun the work of Americans with names less prominent than Bernstein, Copland, or Barber. Do such performers actually find Liebermann’s music superior to that of any number of other traditionalists of the post-1950 generation—not to mention many others who lived earlier in the century? (A colleague who joined me in listening to this CD wondered “whether conductors like Liebermann’s music because they are convinced of its high artistic stature, or because they feel confident that audiences won’t be alienated by it.” The latter may be a perfectly acceptable reason, but I’d like to know their thinking nevertheless.)

Liebermann’s Second Symphony—his Op. 67—was written in 1999 to commemorate both the centennial of the Dallas Symphony and the start of the third millennium of Christian civilization. The 37-minute work is scored for chorus and large orchestra, augmented by organ and offstage brass. The text sung by the chorus is taken from the poetry of Walt Whitman, who continues to be a favorite of English-speaking composers. The name of Howard Hanson may reflexively appear in the mind of the reader well versed in American music, as the neo-romantic from Nebraska frequently indulged his fondness for Whitman’s poetry in grand choral-orchestral settings—and, indeed, used some of the same verses chosen here by Liebermann. And, what is more remarkable, while Hanson was some 65 years Liebermann’s senior, a side-by-side comparison of such related works by the two composers proves quite revealing. For example, I have always felt that Hanson’s “Sea Symphony,” written when he was past 80, failed to support its passionately surging gestures with convincing musical substance. Interestingly, Liebermann’s symphony, drawing upon much the same vocabulary and rhetoric, exhibits strikingly similar weaknesses: too much homophonic and unison writing, simple textures with too little counterpoint, while expansive, long-breathed lines soar mightily upward in a futile effort to match Whitman’s pantheistic grandiloquence. (And the prominent role played by the xylophone in the finale is almost an explicit nod to Hanson.) In addition to Hanson, the spectre of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony seems an almost tangible presence during the last two movements of Liebermann’s work. There is certainly nothing ugly or inept about the symphony, and indeed there are some very stirring moments, but they engender the anticipation of mega-epiphanies that require more generative power than the composer is able to muster.

Liebermann’s Flute Concerto, composed in 1992, is well on its way into the standard repertoire, having already been recorded by James Galway and the London Mozart Players on RCA 09026-63235-2 (see Fanfare 22:4 for Benjamin Pernick’s comments). In many ways this is a more fully consummated work than the symphony, although its language in this case owes a great deal to Prokofiev, in its abrupt key-changes and the prominent use of a tick-tock figure. But the lovely, Lydian-flavored theme that opens the work insinuates itself into the listener’s sympathies immediately, proclaiming a tender lyricism that dominates the concerto as a whole. The second movement imparts a rich warmth, while the finale concludes the work with sprightly good cheer. It is not difficult to understand the appeal of a piece like this, although “serious record collectors” are likely to have already acquired the Galway disc and will be annoyed not to be offered one of the composer’s many as-yet-unrecorded works as a companion piece to the symphony—especially in view of Eugenia Zukerman’s overly subdued and somewhat under-characterized reading of the Flute Concerto.

Re-reading this review, I seem to sound like a crabby sourpuss, impossible to please, and somehow resentful of Liebermann’s considerable success. I feel compelled to conclude by asserting that while I am a consistent advocate of communicativeness as an aesthetic necessity, mere accessibility is not a sufficient condition for a satisfying work—especially when one is aware that there is no shortage of recent works that offer fuller, more deeply rewarding experiences. If the reader’s appetite is whetted by my descriptions of the music on this disc, then proceed with the assurance that you won’t be disappointed. But don’t be seduced into believing that this is the best music being composed today.