Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough


Liebermann: Piano Concertos

LOWELL LIEBERMANN was born in New York City in 1961 and has swiftly risen to become one of the most prolific and performed American composers of his generation. Many awards and prizes have accompanied him through the first thirty-six years of life and his first fifty-six completed works, and he has written for virtually every instrument and in most forms.

Liebermann's music to date can be divided roughly into two periods. The first contains works of a certain contrapuntal angularity, where themes take uncompromisingly atonal paths; in the second period works are guided more by harmonic significance, following maps of tonality, although often arriving at unexpected destinations. His ambitious and precocious First Symphony, Op 9 (1982), is a useful guide to his developing language, as the piece was worked on over a number of years and completed at a point when his musical style was undergoing a change. The stretched atonality of the earlier three movements becomes an expanded lyricism by the extraordinary close of the last movement, when a series of magical chords is like a healing of the earlier conflict, a gentle growth of wings with which future ideas could fly. I remember sitting with David Diamond (the Symphony's dedicatee) when the piece was first played - at a rehearsal session with the Juilliard Orchestra - and, as we followed the score together, he turned to me and whispered, "But you can't do that", referring to this moment of unashamed tonality, the falsely-related chords like some ghost of Gesualdo tapping the twentieth century on its shoulder. Fifteen years after that rehearsal the musical climate has changed - there has been a global, tonal-warming - and we have realized with delight that 'you can do that'!

  • Concerto No 1 For Piano And Orchestra, Op 12
  • (dedicated to Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji)

The two concertos on this recording can be seen as representative of these two styles, although the first has a less tensely argued counterpoint than some earlier works, particularly the String Quartet, Op 5 (1979). The virtuosic demands of the concerto form have eclipsed the nitty-gritty labyrinths of part-writing, but there is no sign yet of the romantic flowering which would grow from the final pages of the Symphony. There is rather a lanky, adolescent athleticism here, as if on this youthful frame no fat has yet formed. Behind the acrobatic high jinks, however, there is a darker side to the work in its use of two plague-inspired elements. The popular tune 'Fortune, my Foe', from Anne Cromwell's Virginal Book (1638) and other contemporary collections, is used in all three movements in various intervallic disguises; and the third movement is subtitled 'Maccaber Dance' after the Scottish adventurer Maccaber described as being 'half a skeleton' - who instituted a graveyard dance-procession in Paris during the plague which became known later as the 'Danse Macabre'. Furthermore, the second movement was inspired by the section 'Dream Fugues' in De Quincey's Confessions of an Opium Eater.

Three fortissimo unison Bs rip the piece open and introduce us to a world of steel-and-glass virtuosity; the thematic material is terse and frugal, its glittering octaves the leanest of chords - chops picked clean of meat. The whole first movement - thematic and harmonic material as well as accompanying figuration - derives from these unison Bs (theme 1) and from a motif based on three notes a semitone apart (A sharp, B and C) which stretch to a major third above (theme 2). Furthermore, theme 2 is arranged around three Bs and thus could be seen as a variation of theme 1. The mirror shape of theme 2 is a reflection of the movement's overall miffor structure in both key and material:

Structure Example

Theme 3 is the quote from 'Fortune, my Foe', mentioned above.

The slow movement is a bleak landscape of loneliness which opens with a haunting, rocking theme for solo piano based on a series of deceptive cadences. A shadow of theme 2 from the first movement is implied with the first chord (G sharp dominant 7th), its implied cadence (A), and the used deceptive cadence (B flat). This theme is repeated with superimposed, pianissimo divided strings made up of the four avoided cadences of the main theme in retrograde. A four-part fugue of semitone couplets appears, first for the piano alone, then for woodwind quartet with the 'Fortune, my Foe' theme appearing as piano accompaniment. The movement closes as it began with the piano's rocking theme, except that now the second and fourth cadences are perfect, not deceptive, giving a strange slump of weariness to the theme as it sinks down a semitone at these points; it is as if someone has been into a familiar room and changed the position of just one painting.

The third movement, 'Maccaber Dance', opens like the first with three unison fortissimo Bs, but this time the strings accompany with a syncopated diminution of this motif, the ostinato triplets becoming a rash of spots over the skin of the entire movement. The piano boldly declaims the exuberant main theme (a combined reworking of themes I and 2 from the first movement), while the ostinato triplets in the strings change from B to C to D flat and back to C, ending on B - an elephantine, augmented version of the same movement's theme 2. The third movement's second theme is a further metamorphosis of the first movement's two themes, becoming more manic at each appearance. The 'Fortune, my Foe' theme appears first in the piano in a clever combination of all three themes as its opening intervals are distorted into three semitones, and its figuration is the thrice-repeated unison, spread over a devilishly awkward three-octave span. This Elizabethan extract continues to reappear with a menacing domination until the work ends - the three punched chords slashing like a rapier, the semitone theme a raspberry-clustered chord, blown with blackened tongue, and the piano's final octaves tumbling down in a frenzy to the last unison B.

  • Concerto No 2 For Piano And Orchestra, Op 36
  • (commissioned by the Steinway Foundation, dedicated to Stephen Hough)

The Second Concerto is one of the major and most representative works of Liebermann's second period, along with the opera The Picture of Dorian Gray, Op 45 (1995). What is most astonishing about this work is that, beneath the sumptuous romanticism radiating from every page, there is a formidable technical command holding the piece together like an iron frame. Where the First Concerto uses its material in a deliberately clear-cut way, the Second Concerto is more concerned with implication, with half-light, with continually shifting references, and thus is harder to describe (except in the sort of detail inappropriate in the present setting).

The whole work is concerned with two motivic elements: a semitone cell providing the springboard for every melodic idea in the piece; and the ambiguity of major/minor thirds which contributes to the melodic fabric and provides the harmonic substance for the work. (Of course, it is precisely a semitone which distinguishes a major third from its minor counterpart.) At the centre of the concerto is a twelve-note row which incorporates these two elements:

Liebermann Concerto Example 1

The first eight notes are four major-third couplets, related semitonally to each other, and the remaining four notes are two semitone couplets - note too the implied minor thirds. Although this row is used complete as a ground in theme 2 of the first movement and, most strictly, as the passacaglia theme with its twelve variations in the third movement, its purpose is more symbolic than theoretical in the work as a whole, serving as a convenient metaphor for the central musical argument.

After two introductory bars of woodwind which present the two elements - a 'motto' semitone cell, and the thirds interplay - the piece begins with cascading piano figuration which glitters as a major/minor backdrop to theme I in the strings, a long melody spun-out from the semitone cell. This theme is repeated and extended by the piano in chords up to the tutti chorale-like climax, with its piano mini-cadenzas, which harmonizes the first seven notes of theme I in two different ways. There follows theme 2, a variation of theme 1, which is harmonized by the twelve-note row buried inside the rich chords. This material is developed with great resource and increasing intensity until the arrival of theme 3, a fugato derived from the latter part of theme I (bars 12 to 14). The main cadenza of the movement, rather than being extraneous to the structure, serves as the only recapitulation of theme 2; and after the cadenza, theme I returns with instrumentation of piano and orchestra in a similar rolereversal.

The second movement, in B major/minor, playfully inverts theme I of the first movement:

Liebermann Concerto Example 2

The movement is harmonically spiced with piquant major/minor grace notes. Theme 2 is a further development of the same ideas, juxtaposed semitones and thirds. At the recapitulation, theme I remains at the same pitch level but the harmony (in the piano left hand, flute, marimba and harp) has been raised a semitone, thus shifting the key from B to C and giving an uncanny sense of increased animation without a change of tempo. This key remains in place through the madcap, prestissimo coda. Only the last bar tweaks the key back to B as the orchestra contradicts the piano's E flat with a sparkling B major chord.

The third movement opens with a bass clarinet motif of four semitones arranged B flat, B, A, C - which is the key sequence for the four movements. The inclusion of this 'rune' here is significant, because the third movement is the spiritual centre of the whole work. After a free section, full of uneasy stillness and abounding with semitones and ma or/minor thirds, there is a dramatic statement of the passacaglia theme (the twelve-note row of example 1) punctuated by sombre trombone fanfares. There follow twelve variations in the twelve keys of the chromatic scale following the sequence of the note-row. The movement ends with a repetition of the unadorned passacaglia theme, back to the key of A, this time played softly with the four-note 'rune' motif fluttering between the phrases. One further structural point worth mentioning is that the recapitulation occurs half-way through the passacaglia (at variation seven); this means that the free material from the exposition now becomes the latter six variations of the passacaglia - and thus a variation on itself. The movement's plan is therefore as follows:

Liebermann Concerto Structure Example

The fourth movement has no new material but with boundless energy, and an affectionate nod at the virtuoso piano concerto tradition, it reworks ideas from the other movements into an ebullient rondo. Theme I is a combination of the original semitone cell motif and the major/minor thirds; and the fugato theme from the first movement reappears in muted brass as a transition to theme 2, the violin melody from variation six in the third movement passacaglia. Many other motivic modifications race past before theme 2 returns, now in the home key of B flat, as the 'big tune' accompanied by brass fanfares based on theme 1. Two further direct quotes from the first movement are heard in the coda: a countermelody in the horns which is the first nine notes of theme 1; and the final, explosive octaves in the piano, which closed the first movement, now shred ribbons of major/minor thirds in an interlocking pattern up the keyboard, accompanied by five insistent, blaring trombone reminders of the semitone cell which began the work.

There is an audacity, comparable to any 1960s iconoclasm, in boldly allowing melodies to soar as they do in the Second Concerto. Melody and harmony, materials as old as oak and gold, cannot be 'subject' to anything, least of all to fashion, that tin-pot dictator who retires before he can be deposed. Liebermann freely acknowledges a debt to the past and a conscious growth out of tradition, but this growth involves change and development. Unlike the reactionary who looks backwards at tradition, Liebermann looks forward with tradition, confidently employing modem techniques alongside materials of the past with a refreshing lack of self-consciousness or anxiety. George Steiner's perceptive comparison of 'novelty' and 'originality', although referring specifically to the disposable jour of journalism, is pertinent here:

Originality is antithetical to novelty. The etymology of the word alerts us. It tells of a return, in substance and in form, to beginnings. In exact relation to their originality, to their spiritual-formal force of innovation, aesthetic inventions are 'archaic'. They carry in them the pulse of the distant source.

(Real Presences, Faber & Faber, 1989)

Saint Augustine made the claim 'Cantare amantis est' ('Only the lover sings') and, for a music-lover, singing is an extension of breathing. Audiences and amateurs (George Steiner reminds us in the same book that the linguistic root of 'amateur' is 'love') often run away from concert halls precisely because they find themselves unable to breathe, unable to sing. Obviously this is not a literalist question of vocal chords or simplistic tunes, but rather that 'singing in the ears', that identification with soundwaves which reaches to the very core of our response to music. Liebermann, within the framework of solid, intellectual construction, impeccable craftsmanship, and a richly distinctive voice, has opened familiar windows on a new and unexpected beauty, where the air is fresh, yet does not chill.

As an appendix to this recording, we give a selection of encores taken from Liebermann's Album for the Young, Op 43 (1993), a set of eighteen children's pieces dedicated to the pianist Andrew Wilde's children Jennifer and Matthew. Notable among them are 'Starry Night', which is used in the love duet from The Picture of Dorian Gray, and 'Rainy Day' which is a reworking of one of the earliest pieces written by the composer as a child.

Stephen Hough © Copyrighted Material Back to Writings
Stephen Hough