This Bridge album brings together reissues of three important works by American composer Peter Lieberson and a first recording of his 2003 Piano Quintet. The earliest and latest works on the CD, Bagatelles for piano (1985) and the Piano Quintet, are surprisingly the most similar. Lieberson was never a doctrinaire modernist, but the music from much of his career, and including these two pieces, tends toward linear angularity and harmonic astringency. Even at its most abstract, though, his music has such alert intelligence and fresh inventiveness that it stands out from much of the "difficult" serious music of the end of the 20th century. In the mid-'90s his music took on a more lyrical character, which, combined with his formidable technique and innate expressiveness, resulted in works of astonishing communicative power and depth. (His Neruda Songs, written for his wife, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in 2005, won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award.) Lieberson described the more overtly emotional sound of his music not as simply being more accessible, but as “more naked -- something that wants to come through and allowing it, whatever its form should be.’’
His Second Piano Concerto, subtitled "Red Garuda," after a magical bird in Eastern mythology with the ability to fly forever without resting, is an example of his more evocative, directly communicative style. The work is in three continuous movements and is spectacularly colorful and engaging; this is a concerto that deserves the attention of pianists looking for fresh repertoire that should grab and delight audiences. It's a virtuoso showcase, and Peter Serkin, long a strong advocate of the composer's, plays it with terrific passion with sonorous accompaniment by the New York Philharmonic, energetically led by James Conlon. The five Rilke Songs (1997-2001) are similarly impressive. In retrospect, they sound something like a warmup for the unabashedly romantic Neruda Songs. Lieberson's musical language here is getting more recognizably tonal, and some of the songs show the unmistakable influence of early 20th harmonic vocabularies. His vocal writing, clearly tailored for his wife's voice, is gorgeously lyrical. Hunt Lieberson sings the songs with lustrous, soaring tone and piercing understanding, and Serkin provides attentive and shapely accompaniments. Bridge's sound is consistently clean and open. This is a CD that should have strong appeal for fans of new music that is both intellectually rigorous and emotionally transparent.