Classical CD Reviews

LOWELL LIEBERMANN: Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano; Sonata No. 2 for Cello and Piano; Album Leaf; Sonata No. 3 for Cello and Piano (“Sonata Semplice”); Sonata No. 4 for Cello and Piano – Dmitri Atapine, c. /Adela Hyeyeon Park, p. – Blue Griffin

Stimulating music and fine performances let down by a less-than-stellar sound recording.

Published on July 19, 2013

LOWELL LIEBERMANN: Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano, Op. 3; Sonata No. 2 for Cello and Piano, Op. 61; Album Leaf, Op. 66; Sonata No. 3 for Cello and Piano (“Sonata Semplice”), Op. 90;  Sonata No. 4 for Cello and Piano, Op. 108  – Dmitri Atapine, c. /Adela Hyeyeon Park, p. – Blue Griffin BGR255, 61:00 [Distr. by Albany] ***1/2:

Lowell Liebermann (b. 1961) is one of those composers who eschews the trendier avenues of contemporary American music—minimalism, pop-influenced neo-tonalism—and so his music sounds modern rather than postmodern. Maybe I’m overstating the case, but Liebermann seems to take us back to that time just before post-Webernian serialism became the only recourse of the truly serious American composer. Liebermann’s music is thus sinewy, highly chromatic, rhythmically varied—in short, very much like that of composers such as Vincent Persichetti, Peter Mennin, and Liebermann’s own teacher, David Diamond. Which is just fine by me, actually.

Another thing seems apparent from his chamber music for cello: Liebermann found his particular musical voice early on and despite an obvious maturation of his style did not adopt another. Not for him a musical conversion experience such as Krzysztof Penderercki or George Rochberg had. The First Sonata, written when Liebermann was a seventeen-year-old music student, and the Fourth Sonata, written by a forty-seven year old composer with over a hundred opus numbers to his credit, are unmistakably by the same hand. Both works alternate quiet, contemplative, even mysterious passages with fiery, explosive ones, the chief difference being that whereas both sonatas return, arch-like, to the mysterious mood of their beginnings, the later work shakes off that mood to end with what cellist Dmitri Atapine calls “an afterthought of agitation.”

Maybe the most volatile of the sonatas is the Second, which works itself up to a frenzied moto perpetuo with wild syncopations before dissolving into a tranquil close with watery scales in the piano and a sweet song from the cello, which fades out in a series of harmonics that take us up into the musical stratosphere. Sonata No. 2 was written for cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Stephen Hough, who gave the premiere performance in 1998, so it’s not surprising to find Liebermann’s most challengingly virtuosic music enshrined here. But then it’s interesting to note that the calm and highly lyrical Album Leaf of the following year was first performed by the same artists and dedicated to Steven Isrellis. The piece was commissioned by Faber Music as one in a series of short pieces of intermediate difficulty for young musicians.

The Third Sonata has all the hallmarks of the other sonatas—quiet mystery, explosive agitation—but as its subtitle, “Sonata Semplice,” implies, it is “a consummate exercise in achieving the greatest degree of variety using the most restricted set of building blocks. . . .” Fitting in with this near-rustic simplicity is a quotation from Gounod’s Ave Maria, which is in turn based on Bach’s Prelude No. 1 from the Well-Tempered Clavier, with its famous rippling figure in the right hand that Bach subjects to the most minimal of variations, simply modulating in a way that seems to anticipate Philip Glass! In Liebermann’s piece, the Bach quotation achieves the same hypnotic effect, bringing the work to a hushed and tranquil close.

The performances by Dmitri Atapine and Adela Hyeyeon Park are solid ones, capturing the varied moods of Liebermann’s music and delivering the virtuoso passages of the Second Sonata with real élan. However, I find that the sound that Blue Griffin supplies, set down in its studio The Ballroom, is not at all as nuanced as the performances. It seems a bit hard-edged, as well as two-dimensional. That’s something of a let-down, but please, don’t let it deter you from getting to know this stimulating music and these fine musicians.

—Lee Passarella

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