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Personal Demons / Lowell Liebermann

Release Date: 02/05/2021
Label: Steinway & Sons Catalog #: 30172
Composer:  Lowell Liebermann ,  Miloslav Kabeláč ,  Franz Liszt ,  Franz Schubert  ...  Performer:  Lowell Liebermann Number of Discs: 2

Composer and pianist Lowell Liebermann says that Personal Demons consists of music that he has been personally haunted by - pieces by other composers that have preoccupied and inspired him for most of his compositional career. Framing these works on this double album are three of Liebermann's own pieces that have special significance for him.

Lowell Liebermann is among America's most frequently performed and recorded living composers. ClassicsToday.com calls his music “consistently engaging, colorful, tuneful, and approachable.”

R E V I E W S:

It is an honor to recommend the double-CD set on the Steinway & Sons label entitled Personal Demons, featuring world-renowned composer Lowell
Read more Liebermann (lowellliebermann.com), one I’ve admired for several decades. Here he is heard in the role of pianist. Though there is nothing new about Lowell Liebermann’s pianistic strengths (as the idiomatic keyboard writing in his compositions will attest), Personal Demons marks his first solo CD in which he is the pianist, and he is outstanding.

In addition to playing his own Gargoyles, Apparitions, and Nocturne, No. 10, Op. 99 – an education for those who have played these – he offers a selection of formidable works by other composers. As Mr. Liebermann writes, “Personal Demons consists of music that I have been personally haunted by – pieces written by other composers that have preoccupied me and inspired me for most of my compositional career, ones that ‘I wish I wrote.’ Framing these are three of my own pieces that have special significance for me.”

Least known on the two discs may be the Preludes, Op. 30 of Czech composer Miloslav Kabelác (1908-1979), which bear some kinship to the music of Kabelác’s countryman Janácek. Kabelác has a highly sympathetic interpreter in Lowell Liebermann, and these miniatures emerge as treasures. Some musicians may be inspired to purchase the set for these gems alone, but Mr. Liebermann closes the first disc with the hair-raising Totentanz of Franz Liszt, which he plays with ferocity – and then there’s disc two.

On the set’s second disc, after his own marvelous Apparitions, Mr. Liebermann plays the Variations on a Theme of Hüttenbrenner, D. 576, by Franz Schubert, a composer whose music he cherishes, as he reveals in his personal and informative program notes. The D. 576 Variations are striking for their harmonic twists and turns, and though some pianists (the relatively few who play them) tend to smooth things over as if to disguise what may be perceived as quirks, they are all consciously laid out here in what is a faithful and insightful performance.

As if these works were not already enough unusual fare to draw pianophiles, Mr. Liebermann includes the monstrous Fantasia Contrappuntistica (solo piano version) by Ferrucio Busoni. The latter is a notoriously massive undertaking, musically and pianistically – Herculean striving with Bachian inspiration at its core. To be frank, I’ve never taken to this piece and would probably only enjoy it upon consumption of some mind-expanding drug, but Mr. Liebermann’s version will undoubtedly take an important place alongside the not too numerous versions available. Bravo for taking it on – and with mastery!

For this listener, a high point was hearing the closing work, Mr. Liebermann’s own Nocturne No. 10, Op. 99, written in memory of the composer Gian Carlo Menotti. Between the potent lyricism of the composition itself and the expressive performance, it is extremely moving, making a fitting closing statement to follow so many pianistic adventures.

Speaking of adventures, one reads in the credits that Mr. Liebermann recorded these two discs in August and November of 2020, mid-pandemic, at the studio of recording wizard Sergei Kvitko in Lansing, Michigan; this was at a time when many were reluctant to step outside, let alone travel from the East coast. Congratulations are in order to all involved in this meaningful achievement.

-- New York Concert Review

While listening to this recording I was struggling with the decision as to where to list it on this website. Under piano collections or under composers. It eventually became clear that Lowell Liebermann (b. 1961) is just as good if not better a composer than a pianist. And since he's a stupendous pianist that says a great deal. Take the opening Presto and closing Presto feroce from Gargoyles for example. So devilishly (pun intended) demanding in a technical sense, and yet burning with an intense romantic fire (pun intended). The type of piano piece virtuosos like Marc-André Hamelin like to dazzle with. Or the Allegro moderato from the same suite, spun of sparkling light and shimmering wings. A delight to hear. And at the other end of the spectrum lies his Nocturne No. 10 written in memoriam to Gian Carlo Menotti. A harmonically complex and probing work that in the end resolves to a simple and yet tender and profound farewell. A fitting way to end the program. The title of this 2-Disc set is Personal Demons and according to the booklet notes by Liebermann himself: "consists of music that I have been personally haunted by - pieces by other composers that have preoccupied and inspired me for most of my compositional career, ones that "I wish I wrote." These include the rarely heard (only one other recording I believe) set of Eight Preludes, Op. 30 by Czech composer Miloslav Kabelá? (1908-1979) who is often compared to Leos Janá?ek or Bohuslav Martin?. His particular idiosyncrasy seems to be the development and inclusion of unusual intervals. Liebermann admires them for their "jewel-like clarity". And I'm sure we can all understand anyone's fixation on Franz Liszt's dark and foreboding Totentanz. Any adolescent musician would attach gothic images and attributes to its subject matter. Its technical wizardry alone is enough to impress anyone, and Liebermann nails it. If anyone could write something this elaborate based on something as simple as the Gregorian mass Dies Irae, that would be Franz Liszt. And the unmitigated depth and complexity of Ferruccio Busoni's Fantasia Contrappuntistica should be enough to compel any pianist to scale its heights and come out the other end with a better understanding of counterpoint.

-- Classical Music Sentinal

The solo debut album of American composer and pianist Lowell Liebermann (b. 1961) features his own works as well as music by Schubert, Liszt, Busoni and Kabelac. The compositions of the first three have haunted and preoccupied Liebermann for many years to such an extent that he refers to them as ‘personal demons’. Gargoyles op. 29 is named after the gargoyles of Notre-Dame in Paris, without them inspiring the music, for the title came last. But it really does fit very well. The music is exciting, pianistically attractive and very expressive. It is not difficult to connect it mentally with the gargouilles of the Paris church.

The Czech composer Miloslav Kabelac (1908-1979) was largely ignored during the communist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia. He has not recovered from this to this day, as he is only sparsely represented in recording catalogs. Before Lowell Liebermann, only Daniel Wiesner had recorded the Eight Preludes. The American’s playing is more gripping and expressive, much more intense than the Wiesner’s, and so it can be said that these Preludes are now available for the first time in a truly enthralling interpretation.

On the immensely sonorous Steinway grand, Liebermann succeeds in a fascinatingly virtuosic and demonically urgent interpretation of Liszt’s Totentanz. With Liebermann, the rarely recorded, very difficult solo version becomes downright electrifying. With their unreal suggestive music – they are, so to speak, explosions in the mist – Liebermann’s Apparitions are an effective piece leading to Schubert’s Hüttenbrenner Variations, whose sometimes directly mysterious character the pianist captures very well, without neglecting the virtuosity that is very much contained in these variations.

Busoni’s half-hour Fantasia contrappuntistica BV 256 of 1910 is an attempt to complete the final and fragmentary fugue Contrapunctus XIV from Johann Sebastian Bach’s late cycle Die Kunst der Fuge. Liebermann plays it clearly articulated and expressively enriched. After this ‘heaven-storming’ Busoni, Liebermann wanted to end his program with his own 10th Nocturne, composed in memory of Gian Carlo Menotti. It is an atmospheric and moving piece that brings the program of these two impressive CDs to a very thoughtful close.

-- Pizzicato

... a new two-CD Steinway & Sons release featuring pianist/composer Lowell Liebermann is a specialty item for the way it handles music that is both familiar and less-known. This is one of those highly personalized releases that have become increasingly common as performers have sought to curate their own recitals in the hope that audiences will share their fascination with specific works presented in specific combinations. The approach is often too self-involved to reach out successfully, becoming a kind of musical navel-gazing. But when it works, it can provide considerable insight into the performer as well as the music on offer. And it works very well indeed in this case – thanks largely to the fact that Liebermann, himself a composer as well as a virtuoso pianist, has assembled pieces that work well in and of themselves, and also work well in the specific environment in which they are proffered here. The key to this is the inclusion of three works by Liebermann himself: Gargoyles to open the two-CD set, Four Apparitions in the middle, and Nocturne No. 10 as the final piece. Gargoyles (1989) clearly shows, in its four movements, Liebermann’s skill at tone-painting and grotesquerie, especially in the opening Presto and concluding Presto feroce. The suite’s sensibility and pianism place it firmly in the line of such masterly 19th-century pianist/composers as Liszt and Alkan. Four Apparitions (1985) shows in other ways how attracted Liebermann is to the offbeat and supernatural, with the music here more spooky and ethereal than overtly grotesque: some descriptive words in the tempo indications are fragile, misterioso and legatissimo. And Nocturne No. 10 (2007) combines elements of the two suites, being a night-picture with more dissonance than one would expect in a nocturne, but not so much as to produce a nightmarish effect. The three Liebermann works are in the Romantic tradition but exist well beyond it harmonically, and they blend and contrast well with four other pieces – three by well-known composers and one by the far-less-familiar Miloslav Kabelá? (1908-1979). A prominent Czech composer whose career was hamstrung by the Communist rule of his nation during his creative life, Kabelá? is best known for his eight symphonies and other orchestral music. But the Eight Preludes (1956) show him to be skillful in piano writing, in which he shares considerable thoughts and feelings with Liebermann: the individual pieces are of the same general length as those in Gargoyles and Four Apparitions, and they explore similarly evocative feelings and impressions – Ostinato, Meditation, Dreams, Chorale, Nocturne, Soaring, Aria, and Impetuosity. Liebermann plays them as if their worldview and his are closely matched – which, indeed, sounds as if it is the case. But Liebermann goes well beyond miniatures when presenting the three other works offered here. Liszt’s Totentanz (1864) gets the usual demonic fury and outstanding playing that it requires, but there is rhythmic subtlety and careful contrast of sections in Liebermann’s rendition that give the work an extra level of heft. Schubert’s Variations on a Theme of Anselm Hüttenbrenner (1817) uses a theme from a string quartet by Hüttenbrenner (1794-1868) that the composer himself made the basis of four variations – but that Schubert expands into 13. The rhythm of this theme, one long note and then two short ones, recalls that of the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, and sensitivity to that rhythmic heritage is a key to what Schubert does and what a performer must do to present the piece effectively. Again, Liebermann rises to the occasion, showing here as in his own music how thoroughly he understands the role of rhythmic variation (and other forms of variation) in producing a well-constructed piece that satisfies both in concept and in performance. And then there is the longest piece on this release, by far: Busoni’s amazing Fantasia Contrappuntistica (1910), a vast homage to Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge that can take more than half an hour to play and that requires the pianist not only to show mastery of fugues (the work contains four of them) but also to handle the variation form with care and sensitivity (the work contains three variations). This is a vast canvas and something of a monster to perform, and can be difficult to keep cohesive, since the 12 parts in which it is written can easily seem like individual (if related) works. Liebermann’s demonstrated compositional and performance skill with the forms of suite and variations is put fully to the test here, and serves both the pianist and the music very well. The performance is grand, on the slow side without dragging, and requires Liebermann to delve into Busoni’s musical structure while remaining cognizant of the foundational elements of Bach underlying it. The piece is played with great élan and feels like the climax of this entire release – indeed, it is followed only by Liebermann’s own Nocturne, which comes across less as encore than as peroration. Liebermann gives this two-CD set the overarching title of “Personal Demons,” but it is more than an exploration of the demonic: it is a release that takes listeners through a virtuoso’s musical journey in which his own compositions reflect, build upon and expand – or at least explore – some fascinating works of earlier composers and composer/pianists.

-- Infodad.com

Released to coincide with his 60th birthday, American pianist and composer Lowell Liebermann’s new double album Personal Demons features three of his own compositions which have special significance for him alongside music by other composers which has haunted, inspired and shaped his musical career and compositional output. It’s an interesting mix of moods, from the demonic Presto opening movement of Liebermann’s suite Gargoyles (his most performed work) to the fragile lyricism of Kabelá?’s Preludes (a composer whose music I had not encountered before), the dark majesty of Liszt’s Totentanz and Busoni’s herculean Fantasia Contrappuntistica, Liebermann’s unsettled and haunting Apparitions complemented by the expressive peculiarities and unexpected harmonies of Schubert’s Hüttenbrenner, and finally Liebermann’s Nocturne No. 10, Op. 99, written in memory of the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, which provides a moving and intimate, if not entirely settled, close to the album.

Liebermann’s playing is vivid, expressive and, when required, fleet and ferocious. This is exactly the kind of selection I’d happily hear in concert, and the opportunity to experience not only a composer playing his own music, but also the music which is particularly special to him offers some fascinating insights into Liebermann’s musical influences. This is also music which demands concentrated listening, but it’s well worth the effort.

-- The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Composer- pianist Lowell Liebermann has just released a two-disc testament, expertly curated and impressively executed. It is a witness statement to five decades of life in music – a glimpse into an artistic practice that consistently hits its creative stride, fueled by flames that still burn bright. The album has been adroitly produced, edited and mastered by Sergei Kvitko of Blue Griffin Recordings.

Three of Liebermann’s own works are included in his debut solo recording as a complement to music by Liszt, Busoni, Schubert and little-known Czech composer, Miloslav Kabelác. Each composer has galvanized – even haunted – Liebermann throughout his career. Such “demons” are presumably specters of the inspirational sort and Disc One opens with Liebermann’s most popular piano work, Gargoyles, Op.28. He swiftly introduces us to a forthright and individual brand of pianism, one with rough- cast textures and crystal-clear melodic lines, obliging our ears toward resonant, robust and irresistible soundscapes. We perceive a virtuosic abandon, underpinned with an urgent, restless vitality.

Such forthright modes of expression carry into the next tracks: the Eight Preludes, Op.30 by Kabelá?. These pieces are especially significant for Liebermann and he unveils them to us consummately. Finely etched, bearing echoes of Benjamin Britten, these evocative miniatures have absorbed Liebermann for decades and are here bestowed like building blocks: compositional models at which to marvel. The final work on Disc One is Liszt’s stalwart Totentanz, S525, a vivid, dazzling pianistic essay. The music’s economy of means – characteristic of Liszt’s best writing – remains of discernable in?uence for Liebermann hinting at the American composer-pianist’s own Lisztian lineage.

Disc Two’s Four Apparitions, Op.17 are followed by the extemporaneously tender Variations on A Theme of Hüttenbrenner, D576 by Franz Schubert. This unfamiliar set proves an ideal platform for Liebermann’s lyrical abilities at the keyboard. Next is Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica, BV 256. Likening it to a “Mount Everest that he wanted to climb – a challenge in a way,” Liebermann’s a?nity for Busoni is striking, with an audible reverence for the Italian master’s intellect and formalism on full display.

Finally, the intimately benevolent Nocturne No.10, Op.99 ushers in a denouement. Highly personal for Liebermann, this music hums and swells, waxing poetic like a lucid conversation between lovers, revealing truths of a lifetime. Shades of Samuel Barber and Carl Vine drift in a dusky, sonic bloom as Liebermann’s piano now quietly sings this album to a whispered, nocturnal close. And so, what might the morrow bring, we wonder?

-- The Whole Note

Many of the releases on the Steinway & Sons label have sought, in one way or another, to revive the golden age of pianism. However, until now, the label has not touched on one of the most common pianistic phenomena of a century ago: the composer-pianist. Anyone who has heard Lowell Liebermann's popular Gargoyles, Op. 29, will have realized his formidable piano talent, but this release, made when he was 60, marks his solo piano debut. The "personal demons" of the title combine works of a demonic mood with those that Liebermann wished he might have written, as well as the Gargoyles and some other of the composer's virtuosic works. Along the way, there are obscure but interesting pieces: a set of Preludes by Janá?ek follower Miloslav Kabelá?, and a grand set of variations by the young Schubert. In addition to the latter, there are two other large works, Liszt's Totentanz and Busoni's Fantasia Contrappuntistica -- both performed as brilliantly as one could wish. Liebermann effectively shifts the focus at the end from the public to the personal with a touching Nocturne dedicated to the memory of Gian Carlo Menotti, and throughout, the shifts between Liebermann's music and that of other composers is effective; he reasserts the vitality of the virtuoso tradition. Another plus is the sound engineering from Sergei Kvitko, working in a studio in Lansing, Michigan. He catches the balance between Lisztian scope and inwardness in the program as a whole, and the result is a thoroughly enjoyable two discs of music in a grand tradition.

-- AllMusic Guide Read less