LIEBERSON: Red Garuda (Piano Concerto No. 2) (1999). Rilke Songs (1997-2001). Bagatelles (1985). Piano Quintet (2003).
Peter Serkin (piano); Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (soprano); Orion String Quartet; New York Philharmonic/James Conlon, cond.
Bridge 9317 TT: 68:20

Mixed repertoire, great performances. This CD stands as a souvenir of the long-standing collaboration between Peter Serkin and Peter Lieberson. Serkin not only plays on every track but has either commissioned, premiered, or proselytized all of the works here.

Buddhism has influenced much of Peter Lieberson's music and life. It doesn't matter to me, any more than I love Poulenc's music because of Catholicism or Mozart's because of freemasonry. Ultimately, the music has to stand on its own, independent of whatever intellectual or spiritual currents inspired it.

A garuda, a mythological bird that can fly without rest, symbolizes the spiritual journey, without limit or restraints. Why a red garuda, I have no idea. The piano concerto, continuous variations in one long movement, falls into five main sections: an introduction, maestoso, slow movement, and fast, and slow coda. Despite many beautiful moments, I find it thick and turgid overall, with a rather unmemorable part for the soloist, who tends to become part of the orchestral mass. I liked the slow movement best. It not only sings beautifully, but it also provides some relief from the general wad of din.

Lieberson has known Rilke's poetry since childhood. His mother, the German-Norwegian ballerina Vera Zorina (Eva Brigitta Hartwig), used to quote Rilke around the house. The composer takes texts from the Sonnets to Orpheus. For me, Rilke is the great German poet of the last century (although a right egotist in real life). His poems defy translation, due to the intricacy of structure and to the compression of thought. If you come close to the structure, you lose the thought. If you capture the thought, you trash the structure. Lieberson wrote these settings for his wife, the mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who premiered them and who died from cancer shortly thereafter. They come from a period covering roughly the first five years of the marriage. The music evokes the German fin de siècle -- Mahler, Wolf, and early Schoenberg. Because the texts are all essentially prayers and all deal in some way with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the cycle sends out ironic tendrils encircling its composer and his wife. Death breathes through these poems. To take sections at random:

Fürchtet euch nicht zu leiden, die Schwere
gebt sie zurück an der Erde Gewicht;
schwer sind die Berge, schwer sind die Meere.

(Don't be afraid to suffer, give heaviness back to the earth's
weight; heavy are the mountains, heavy are the seas.) . . .

Und wenn dich das Irdische vergass,
zu der stillen Erde sag: Ich rinne.
Zu dem raschen Wasser sprich: Ich bin.

(And if all earthly things forget you, say to the quiet earth:
I flow. To the rapid water speak: I am.)

It's so much more beautiful in German, a language that doesn't particularly spring to mind when you think of beauty. The songs themselves I think among Lieberson's masterpieces, even without knowing the extra-musical circumstances. Rilke is difficult to set even for Germans, again due to the concentration of image and thought. Lieberson pulls out real song from gnarly texts.

Commissioned by pianist and extraordinary chamber musician Andrew Wolf and premiered by Serkin (probably due to Wolf's illness and early death in 1985), the Bagatelles amount, unfortunately, to little more than well-written contemporary-music clichés. Anybody with the requisite technique and access to music from the Seventies and Eighties could have composed them.

On the other hand, the Piano Quintet counts as my favorite item on the program. Powerful and quirky, it has two movements -- "Celebratory and Joyful" and "Interlude; Poco Meno; Fugue." Just as chamber music, it gets my respect. The string writing gives the players something to do, and Lieberson spreads interest throughout the ensemble. It's a conversation among equals. The first movement, strongly rhythmic, updates the American neoclassic symphonic allegros of the Forties. The second movement begins as a rhetorical breather after the propulsion of the first movement. It leads to a lively section of what Lieberson describes as Cape Breton fiddling in a kind of gigue that grows more and more intense, with occasional duple-time cross-rhythms subtly commenting on all the threes. Gradually, you realize, first, that the fiddling relates to the opening interlude and, second, that the fiddle music is actually fugal, if not exactly a traditional fugue. The movement ends on a joke. The frenzy bursts like a soap-bubble and the quintet ends on a quiet hiccup.

Lieberson certainly can't complain about the quality of his performers. Conlon and the New York Philharmonic do what they can with Red Garuda and at times make you forget the "Johnny One-Note" aspect of the piece. Serkin gives the Bagatelles his all and actually manages to inject some humor, particularly in the last one. However, the standouts are Lorraine Lieberson and Serkin in the Rilke Songs and Serkin and the Orion in the Piano Quintet. You can call neither score easy. Yet the music seems to have burrowed itself into the performers' bones. Singer Lieberson routinely went beyond wonderful technique and impeccable musicianship to winning a listener's soul. She and Serkin make you think of the Ferrier-Walter Mahler partnership, so directly do they communicate. Serkin and the Orion astonish in the Piano Quintet -- a performance that lives in the center of the zone of great chamber music-making.

The sound quality is refreshingly clear throughout. The engineers do their best to wipe away the mud of Red Garuda, but they're merely super-human. Serkin's piano in the other pieces sounds clear and in proper proportion to his partners. The complex textures in the Piano Quintet never seem thick, and you can always hear the various thematic strands.

(March 2011)