LIEBERSON: Red Garuda (Piano Concerto No. 2) (1999). Rilke
Bagatelles (1985). Piano Quintet (2003).
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.
S.G.S. (March 2011)