Orchestral and Vocal Works
* Furioso for Orchestra
* Geigy Festival Concerto
* Les Echanges (Symphonie)
* Concerto for Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra
Rachel Tovey, soprano
Alfons Grieder, percussion
Simon Nabatov, piano
NDR Bigband, Darmstadt Concert Choir, Bremen Philharmonic
Naxos 8.555884 Total Time: 64.32
Summary for the Busy Executive: Novel, but not necessary.
Swiss composer Rolf Liebermann is probably better known for his 14-year
stint as general director of the Hamburg Opera than for his scores.
Indeed, during his term, he completed nothing, or next to nothing.
Liebermann studied dodecaphony but absorbed many more influences,
especially from vernacular sources. His dodecaphony doesn't necessarily
preclude tonality or even melodiousness. He made a splash as a composer
with his Echanges and Concerto for Jazz Band and Orchestra. Both appear
conveniently on one inexpensive Naxos disc. However, his music at this
point receives few performances and fewer recordings. It turns out that
Liebermann was on the cutting edge of his time, drawn to the topical
(even in his opera productions), and there he stayed. Furthermore, most
of the works on this program show a fine sense of humor, which probably
ultimately also worked against him.
The one deadly-serious work, the Medea-Monolog, interests me the least.
A scena for soprano and orchestra, it belongs to an entire operatic genre
- Medea's justification for killing her children. The music mickey-mouses
the text, and one looks in vain for a memorable idea. Placing this
beside something like Barber's Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance
immediately reveals Liebermann's poverty of invention, both in themes
and in working-out. The soprano gets put through one dodecaphonic cliche
after another and often winds up sounding like a slide whistle. The
work comes across as dutiful, rather than inspired.
Furioso is essentially a showpiece, but unlike most, for its rhythmic
energy rather than for its orchestration. A fast section, with ideas
echoing Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings, Percussion,
and Celesta, sandwiches a genuinely lyrical slow section, which may be
twelve-tone. The twelve-tone matters less than the yearning lyricism.
When the kinetic section returns, Liebermann puts it against the theme
of the middle. To those who believe all twelve-tone music sounds alike,
this wouldn't work if you couldn't remember that middle theme.
Liebermann pays homage to his Swiss roots in the Geigy Festival Concerto,
commissioned by the Basel chemical company its bicentenary. Liebermann
created a little tone poem on Fasnacht, after the first Sunday in Lent,
a kind of Swiss Mardi Gras, but more sanitary and proper than what you'd
find in New Orleans or Rio. Pipes-and-drum music is big during this
time, and the Basel drummers have inspired other Swiss composers, notably
Honegger's Fourth Symphony, "Deliciae basiliensis." However, very few
have sought to use the instrument itself, and Liebermann may well have
been the first. He hasn't composed a concerto exactly, but the drum
does have a prominent part and even two brief cadenzas. Most of the
piece is based on Swiss folk-tunes until the third section, which for
some strange reason is based on British and Irish popular tunes - "The
British Grenadier," "London Bridge," "Lillibulero," and "The Girl I Left
Behind Me" - looking at themselves in a fun-house mirror.
Les Echanges was another Swiss commission, this time for the Banking
Pavilion at the 1964 Swiss National Exhibition. Liebermann came up with
a tape piece based on the sounds of the business machines actually on
display. We have here, however, not the original, but an arrangement
for percussion ensemble by Siegfried Finck. One can sort of hear things
like teletypes in the arrangement, but that only whets the appetite for
the original, if it still exists. Again, it's primarily a rhythmic
study, but rhythms are definitely four-square. Fortunately, the piece
does sustain its three minutes.
Liebermann conceived the Concerto for Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra
as a kind of concerto grosso, with the jazz band functioning as the
concertino group. It's part of a large group of works that attempt to
meld classical music and jazz. In eight sections, it primarily alternates
the symphony orchestra with the big band, although both join in the
finale. It made quite a stir in Europe at its premiere, although I
suspect most Americans would find it a bit square, especially compared
to Gil Evans or Jimmy Giuffre. However, it convinces on its own terms.
For the most part, Liebermann keeps the two groups separate, providing
music that suits one or the other. On the other hand, as the piece goes
along, you realize that the basic music material remains the same from
movement to movement. Essentially, the rhythm changes.
Soprano Rachel Tovey gives the Medea-Monolog much more than it deserves,
achieving genuine drama, despite Liebermann's somewhat corny score. The
rest of the performers do well without standing out.
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