LIEBERMANN: Symphony No. 2, Op. 67. Concerto for Flute and
The rebuttals are, of course, quite easy to discover. First, there's probably no such thing as a "natural" piece of classical music: a Haydn symphony contains at least as much artifice as a Schoenberg string quartet. The idiom that Monteverdi and the early Baroque fashioned and that still supplies the basis for our notions of "natural music" was a conscious intellectual act. Music before then didn't sound that way, probably one reason why many people today have as much problem with Cornysh as they do with Carter. Finally, idiom per se means nothing aesthetically. The work means everything. Carter isn't a great composer because his toolkit made him so. Rather, he used his new procedures to make great works. Nevertheless, if you can't even imagine the possibility of a piece of "hard" new music knocking your socks off, you're not imagining hard enough.
So you can imagine the mood I was in when I encountered the following excerpt from the liner notes by Peter G. Davis:
Did musical composition take a wrong turn at some point early in the century? An increasing number of composers born after 1950 seem to think so, and they are determined to win back the affections of audiences alienated by the dissonance and rigorous academic procedures that have characterized so much new music of the recent past. One way to do this is to take a hard look back, retrace our steps, locate that crucial fork in the road, and see where the path not followed at the time might take us now.
This is even bad history. Every "path" that the new post-Romantic composers have followed has had earlier travelers in this century, including (by the way) Schoenberg -- the elephant in the room, apparently. Aside from that, this bunch of half-truths masks something pretty ugly. One can't deny that the audience for new music is small and that most people dislike it. That's the true part. The doubtful part is that composers all by their lonesome did this. I can think of at least three other contributing factors: the rise of a massive and diverse commercial market; the technology of recording and the increase of listeners who neither play nor sing; the decline of musical education. The ugly part is an insistence on a divide in the first place -- that if you like Boulez, you can't possibly like Rachmaninoff. In other words, everybody has to be as limited as the person making such a claim. It's seeing new music as a special case -- and both armies have done this -- that's caused the harm. There is an arrogant ignorance about it: I'm an intelligent fellow; if I don't like it, it can't be any good. It used to be that the arrogant ignorance was on the other side of the battle front. Now it's simply shifted. And the philosophic innocents want it both ways. As justification for their claims of "naturalness" and hard-wired brains, they point to the small numbers of new-music lovers. Yet some of these folks are the same ones who congratulate themselves that they like something "higher and better" than pop music, that they don't follow the herd. As far as I'm concerned, it's simple self-back-patting and an excuse for not doing the hard work of coming to grips with something difficult.
As for myself, I'd rather be confused than bored. My own experience has taught me that sticking with something I initially disliked sometimes paid off. It took me years to like Brahms and Sibelius, both of whom literally put me to sleep. I have yet to like bel canto opera. But I've never claimed that the stuff was no good or that these composers were single-handedly responsible for turning people's musical brains to goo or that our brains were hard-wired to fall asleep at the sound of these composers' works. My ego, huge as it is, doesn't span that particular empyrean.
So what about Liebermann, you're asking? I haven't heard anywhere close to all his stuff. His catalogue includes at least seventy works. Of what I've heard, some I've liked very much, some I haven't cared about, and some I've actively disliked. I first knew some of his piano pieces, of which the Variations on a Theme of Bruckner impressed me the most. It announced a fellow who had his own ideas about how music should go. After all, not many composers can claim Bruckner as an influence. It also showed a long architectural reach. His recent piccolo concerto struck me as light, in the best sense, with real wit. However, the CD for me is a mixed bag: Liked the concerto; thought the symphony had its moments.
The symphony mixes choral with purely instrumental movements. The choral sections use texts by Whitman. Immediately, Liebermann runs into problems. The use of Whitman puts him in competition with such greats as Vaughan Williams, Holst, Sessions, and Hindemith. Liebermann even uses a Whitman passage found in Vaughan Williams's "Sea" Symphony ("O vast Rondure, swimming in space"), and the comparison damns him. In Liebermann, the words simply go by. Vaughan Williams makes the words live and linger in the memory. The symphony does have some good things. Liebermann is able to take big breaths and strides. He hasn't lost his ability to span long distances. His sense of time is genuinely symphonic, his orchestration stunning and, in places, inventive. However, on the basis of this work, he's not a great setter of poetry, and he's not a genius melodist on the order of, say, Samuel Barber or Igor Stravinsky. The best moments of the symphony occur in the purely instrumental passages, and even here Liebermann gets himself in trouble. There's a long symphonic march, much too close to Shostakovich for comfort. In its own terms, it's very successful, but it's pre-tested, as it were. The musical symbols and textures almost always come from other places. Now there's no law that says a good composer need be an original one. Vaughan Williams once wrote that it wasn't the composer's job to say the thing that had never been said before, but to say the right thing at the right time, to find the bon mot. What really begins to bother me is that this is a symphony of no risk at all and of no serious conviction. It's as if one had made up the following poem:
There's nothing really wrong with it per se. But why would you continue to read this when you could read the sources, in every case much better or more interesting, instead? What does it have that compels you? This has nothing to do with "originality" ordinarily understood or traditional vs. avant-garde. One can find plenty of boring, predictable avant-garde pieces as well as boring, predictable neo-Romantic ones. While committed to traditional procedures and idioms, composers like Robert Simpson and Arnold Rosner nevertheless give you something special, as do composers like Steve Reich and Pierre Boulez, who remake themselves practically with each piece. Liebermann doesn't seem able to get out from under his sources here.
The flute concerto -- more modest in its reach -- is more successful in its result. Here, the model seems to be Prokofiev, but the material does reach the level of its model and compels all on its own. At this point, one can actually interest oneself in Liebermann's craft as the generator of beauty. The first movement, the longest by far, has the most structural interest. It's essentially variations on an harmonic ground, somewhat similar in its basis to that of the finale of the Brahms Fourth. Unlike the Brahms, however, Liebermann less sharply delineates the variation sections. It all feels like a "regular" sonata-allegro movement -- a dramatic, progressive musical argument. It may even be one, for all I can tell without a score. The second movement -- a singing adagio -- lets down a bit, substituting well-placed climaxes and gorgeously full textures for real melodic and harmonic distinction, but the substitution, I think, ultimately works. Besides, not everyone is Vaughan Williams.
Liebermann returns to form with the finale, simultaneously dramatic and witty. The ghosts of Shostakovich and Malcolm Arnold put their feet in occasionally, but no more than in passing. Liebermann manages to play with contradictory moods, thus putting the movement into some very exciting psychological country. The concerto ends with a bang.
Liebermann has every reason to congratulate the performers. Litton and his band give gorgeous committed accounts of both works. Zukerman sings beautifully and intelligently in the concerto and sails through a fiendishly difficult last movement. The CD has been spectacularly recorded - spacious, luscious sound that does full justice to the grandeur of Liebermann's orchestration and makes his more intimate moments clear as a glockenspiel's ping.
My one reservation is that my CD had a deteriorated surface that caused ineradicable skipping in the last bars of the concerto. This will probably not happen to you, but you should know about it. If you do buy this CD, check the end of the last track first.
S.G.S. (May 2001)