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Concerto for piano and orchestra No 2, Op 36
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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. 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 1 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 1 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 1 (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 1 returns with instrumentation of piano and orchestra in a similar role-reversal.

The second movement, in B major/minor, playfully inverts theme 1 of the first movement. 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 1 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 major/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:

A (free) B (passacaglia, vars 1-6) A (passacaglia, vars 7-12)

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 1 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 modern 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.

from notes by Stephen Hough © 1997

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Details for CDA66966 track 7
Allegro
Artists
ISRC
GB-AJY-97-96607
Duration
3'40
Recording date
18 January 1997
Recording venue
Caird Hall, Dundee, Scotland
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Tony Faulkner
Hyperion usage
  1. Liebermann: Piano Concertos (CDA66966)
    Disc 1 Track 7
    Release date: May 1997
    Deletion date: November 2012
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