LIEBERMANN:  Furioso for OrchestraGeigy Festival ConcertoMedea-Monolog (Cantata).  Symphonie "Les Echanges."  Concerto for Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra.
Rachael Tovey, soprano; Alfons Grieder, percussion; Simon Nabatov, pianist; NDR Big Band; Darmstadt Concert Choir; Bremen Philharmonic Orch/Głnter Neuhold, cond.
NAXOS 8.555884 (B) (DDD) TT:  64:32


In the first semester of his second season as music director of the Chicago Symphony, Fritz Reiner jolted a Thursday night subscription audience with the American premiere of Rolf Liebermann’s eight-movement Concerto for Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra, featuring the Sauter-Finnegan Orchestra. It was, I believe, one of only three 12-tone works in Reiner’s lifetime repertory (the others were Webern’s Six Pieces and Stravinsky’s Agon), and surely the least substantial — a judgment shared by many listeners that night, but the next afternoon especially. On December 6, 1954, RCA Red Seal recorded this 17-minute concerto along with Strauss’ Don Juan, and issued this bizarre coupling the next year on M-1888, a mono LP. But I find out a half- century later that Victor also issued it on a two-track open-reel tape, which friend Stephen Hillyer (longtime president of the Reiner Society) copied for me on a brilliant-sounding CD. The wonder-workers at JVC, who in 2001 remastered some 20 “Living Stereo” recordings from the ‘50s and early ‘60s on CDs of stunning clarity and opulence, could hardly have improved on the reel tape.

However, I still think the piece is a Darmstadt-type contrivance without charm or spontaneity. I can’t remember what I wrote overnight, or about the LP later on, 50 years ago. But Reiner’s programming and recording of it — since he never conducted anything else by Liebermann — was most likely influenced by RCA, which also had Sauter-Finnegan under exclusive contract at the time, and doubtless gave assurance that royalties would be bountiful. They weren’t. There was another recording after Reiner’s before this new one from Bremen — on a West Coast label called Aries – performed by the “Stockerau” symphony orchestra and jazz band under the leadership of one “Frimmel.” Aries was a short-lived vanity label with primitive sound on sandpapery surfaces. Here at least, on Naxos, the Bremen performance with the NDR Big Band is well-drilled and hearty, thanks to conductor Günter Neuhold, who doubled as producer and second-chair mixing engineer. Between June 5 and 7, 2001, he also recorded the other works listed above — the Geigy Festival Overture and Medea-Monolog for the first time anywhere.

The former was commissioned by a Swiss chemical firm based in Basel, a 12-minute piece with folksongs interlarded during the course of four utterly unmemorable movements. The latter dates from 1990, Liebermann’s 80th year, a setting of Ursula Haas’ poem “Acquittal for Medea” (welcomely printed in both German and English in the program book). It is nearly 24 minutes of geschrei by Rachael Tovey, a young British soprano backed by a chorus from Darmstadt, making it the longest work on this disc. The composer followed his cantata in 1995 with a Medea opera, surely redundant given the durability of Cherubini’s setting two centuries earlier (originally in French), one of Maria Callas’ definitive roles between 1953 and 1959.

This leaves the four-minute Symphony “Les Echanges”(written for Lausanne in 1962 as musique-concrète, but arranged in 1971 for seven percussionists), and the most durable of Liebermann’s works, the 1947 Furioso for orchestra, a three-part overture based on a 12-note row (like the Jazz Band Concerto). It survives for its rhythmic energy, which Neuhold and the orchestra impart admirably. At half the length of the Jazz Band Concerto, it gives at least twice the pleasure.

R.D. (May 2003)