LIEBERSON: Drala. Concerto for Four Groups of Instruments. Accordance. Three Songs.  Ziji.  Raising The Gaze.  Fire.  Free and Easy Wanderer.
Cleveland Orch; London Sinfonietta; Asko Ensemble; Rosemary Hardy, soprano; Oliver Knussen, cond.
DGG 457 606 (F) (DDD) TT:  67:35

Peter Lieberson, son of (I believe) composer and Columbia Records executive Goddard Lieberson, studied with, among others, Milton Babbitt. For a man with the reputation of strait-jacketing cultural commissar, Milton Babbitt has turned out a variety of students, most of whom don't sound like him, let alone like each other. Perhaps the reputation isn't all that well-deserved. Peter Lieberson found his first success fairly early, with a well-received piano concerto for Peter Serkin. Andrew Porter raved about it as a major addition to the repertory. Lieberson has flown pretty much under the radar, at least in the United States, ever since. These works represent high points from the past twenty-five or so years and give me a chance to catch up, so to speak.

Buddhism provides major inspiration for Lieberson, but you don't have to follow or even know much about Buddhism to enjoy the music -- colorful, viscerally exciting, and mystically intense. Lieberson keeps using natural imagery to describe his music, but the thing it most reminds me of is a very complicated watch. A lot of things happen at any one time, and these incidents relate to each other. Lieberson's music gives me the pleasure of looking at the innards of a beautiful repeater. Lieberson's music reminds me a lot of Knussen's -- that is, I think I understand some of the music's appeal to Knussen -- but strikes me as less closely-worked and more powerful. One sees these things very clearly in Drala, four movements played without pause. In the third movement, "Offerings and Praises," one hears an extended cello solo, accompanied by a second cello, flute, and vibraphone. In his comments, the composer points out this combo as something he's proud of. It came to him literally in a dream -- a lucky accident. Yet it comes across as a bit muddy. One can easily imagine Knussen coming up with a combination as unusual but much clearer. On the other hand, I know of nothing in Knussen as primal as Drala's final movement, "Raising Windhorse," which raises images of weather systems, complex currents in various quarters of the sky.

Lieberson writes of the attraction of the single-movement form or of several tightly-related movements. He goes so far as to say

The concept of a multi-movement work in which the movements may not even be musically related has always felt foreign to me.

The question is, of course, why separate movements should be related. Such a notion would have surprised Bach and Mozart in anything other than variations. It comes mainly through the Second Viennese School's veneration of certain aspects of Beethoven. It's also a definition of "relationship" naively narrowed to "paper relationship" -- eye, rather than ear. Movements can relate to one another in all sorts of ways, not just in exhibiting variant patterns of notes. The larger question is always, "Does the music cohere?" A work can fall apart, or fail to come together, despite the procedure of generation from Ur-motif. If not, artistic success comes down to the merely mechanical procedure, something I'm sure Lieberson doesn't believe.

Drala is a Buddhist concept of spiritual energy. Again, you don't need to know this to discover the energy of the piece. It's readily apparent.

The Concerto for Four Groups of Instruments, the earliest piece on the disc, shows the influence of late Stravinsky, particularly, I think, the Movements for piano and orchestra. It's bright and energetic, appropriate to a young man starting out. In a sense, it's very much of its time -- the Seventies -- so far as its compositional procedures go (the post-Webernian serialism that most people think of when they use the word "intellectual" as a sneer). Each group of instruments (and the instrumental combos are both intriguing and sonically winning) has its own thematic material. Lieberson sets himself the task of relating the material of each group to the others. If you have any interest in how composers think, this info may help you, but again it's not the reason why the piece is so winning, any more than Bach's fugues are attractive simply because they're fugues. It has something for the listener who could care less about the machinery. In contrast to so many of the pieces of the Sixties and Seventies in that idiom, it displays an original voice of great wit and charm, as lively as a lamb in Spring.

Accordance doesn't come off nearly so well for me. Lieberson writes that he had become tired of the idiom of the Concerto and was looking for a richer, more "Romantic" sound. He certainly found it. Accordance glows like burnished bronze. Lieberson also regards the piece as the "opposite" of the Concerto: where the Concerto concerned itself with "melodies" combining into harmonies, Accordance generates melodies from a basic set of "chords." The method is readily apparent to the ear, particularly toward the end, but the interest of the piece comes mostly from observing the working-out. There's little really beyond that, at least for me.

I also have blown hot and cold over the Three Songs. Unlike many of his dodecaphonic colleagues, Lieberson actually knows how to write for the voice. For him, it's not simply another instrument that happens to handle words. The lines make vocal sense. Lieberson's music follows the sentiment and the "narrative" of the poems (by Douglas Penick) very perceptively. Yet doubt nags me. I keep asking myself what distinguishes this setting from countless other settings in the same idiom. What makes these songs individually memorable, as Faur»'s Notre Amour, Schubert's Ganymed, or Vaughan Williams's Silent Noon? I can't answer the question, and it may well be the wrong question.

Ziji means "rejoicing," but don't expect Handel. To me, it sounds a little angry, defiant in the way of Poulenc's …l»gie for horn and piano. Undoubtedly, much of this association stems from Ziji's instrumentation -- horn, clarinet, string trio, and piano -- since horn and piano figure prominently in the opening. Again, one hears some late Stravinsky here and there, but the piece impresses one more forcefully as an emotional statement. To me, this is one of the great chamber pieces since 1950. Here, Lieberson achieves the warm Romanticism he sought in Accordance.

Raising the Gaze (the title relates to Buddhist meditation) begins as a kind of contemporary exercise in chinoiserie -- Ravel's "Laideronnette" updated. Lieberson seems to deliberately evoke Asian music -- heretofore, his appropriations have been far more abstract. "Raising Windhorse," for example, used the rhythm of a Tibetan war cry, but I know this only because Lieberson's liner notes told me so. Raising the Gaze, like Ziji, throws off plenty of rhythmic sparks. It gets the blood moving.

Lieberson conceives Fire as part of a series on the Tibetan five elements. He has written none of the other parts yet. Based on this piece, I don't think he should bother. Compared to Ziji or Raising the Gaze, Fire fails to light, despite a lot of orchestral activity (including a wind machine). One comes across Lieberson's musical fingerprints, but I can't shake the feeling that quite a few composers could have written this piece. I'd say the same of the beginning of the Grainger-like titled Free and Easy Wanderer, but interest picks up about a minute into the piece. Considering Lieberson's Buddhism, the nervous energy of so much of Lieberson's music surprises me. He seems to really need meditation. Even the less-hyper end (Lieberson jokingly refers to it as a "chorale") seems uneasy, although that may stem from the dodecaphonic idiom itself.

Performances are fantastic. The Cleveland Orchestra needs no puff from me, and its years under DohnŠnyi have turned it into perhaps the best large orchestra for contemporary music. One hears just about everything in Drala and Fire. The ASKO Ensemble and the London Sinfonietta play with point and verve. Rosemary Hardy triumphs over the mechanics of the Three Songs and beautifully communicates. When one considers the "game tries" of so many performances of contemporary music, one may forgive oneself for regarding these as little miracles. The sound is superb. A splendid job all around.

S.G.S. (October 2002)