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The Devil's Lyre - Piano Music Of David Hackbridge Johnson / Lowell Liebermann

Release Date: 02/04/2022
Label: Steinway & Sons Catalog #: 30200
Composer:  David Hackbridge Johnson Performer:  Lowell Liebermann

Pianist Lowell Liebermann releases an album of world premiere recordings by contemporary British composer David Hackbridge Johnson. Liebermann describes Hackbridge Johnson’s compositional voice as vigorous, unrepentantly melodic, superbly crafted and orchestrated, and with a refreshing and idiosyncratic harmonic sense.

Album Credits:
Recorded June 6-7, 2021 at Blue Griffin’s Studio “The Ballroom”, Lansing, Michigan
Producer/Engineer: Sergei Kvitko
Piano Technician: David Kollar
Piano: Steinway Model D #533611

Executive Producers: Eric Feidner and Jon Feidner
Production Assistant: Renée Oakford
Art Direction: Jackie Fugere
Cover Photo: Sergei
Read more Kvitko
Inside Photo of Lowell Liebermann: Joseph Moran
Design: Cover to Cover Design, Anilda Carrasquillo

Liebermann’s performances are a model of how to present a composer’s music while still in the process of discovering it. Steinway’s sound is very fine

-- International Piano

Following the three stunning discs of his orchestral music (04S008, 08U009, 04U009), we now have the welcome opportunity to sample this unique, largely unclassifiable, and polymathic composer's extensive output for the piano. As the orchestral works made clear, Hackbridge Johnson does not shy away from the expression of raw emotion, dark and disturbing subject matter, or personal trauma in his arresting and accessible tonally based works that might nevertheless legitimately be described as "for serious performers and listeners only", and this is evident here too. The composer has a long acquaintance with the piano, pianists, and the piano repertoire, and is himself an excellent jazz pianist (among his many accomplishments) although the latter makes almost no appearance in his concert works; he writes for the instrument with complete command and great originality. Audible and acknowledged background influences include Chopin, Liszt, Busoni, Scriabin and those who followed him, Stevenson and Sorabji - which, as diverse a group as that is, gives a pretty good idea of the general arc or axis on which he finds himself, and his expressive aims and the technical resources employed to realise them. The diverse set of Nocturnes pay homage to Chopin, though aside from deliberate quotations in the first and melodic and harmonic similarities here and elsewhere, they sound little like Chopin; Busoni and Scriabin are more likely to come to mind. Three have titles expressive of ideas like "spettrale", "occult" and "Devil's lyre", which suggests a common thread, and even in the others, for example the large No.3 and the gorgeously melodic Nos.5 and 6 - the ones that most recall Chopin - the wayward harmonies and the ever-present shadows of grief and mystery inhabit the fringes of the same unsettling world. The same is true of the other works; Barcarolle Elegy No.1 begins with a shocking clamour of giant bells, followed by ghostly tintinnabulations of utter desolation and unbridled fury; Bell-Fanfare follows a similar arc - less funereal maybe, but full of clangorous alarums rather than jubilation. The very Busonian Barcarolle Elegy No.2 begins and ends as an actual barcarolle, but travels to strange and violent regions in its central section. The Calligraphic Poems show an altogether different aspect of the multifaceted composer; characteristically inventive in colour and texture, these pieces, inspired by an exhibition of Japanese calligraphy, are elegant, precise and vividly evocative.

-- Records International

First-rate pianists are increasingly interested in tackling music that is outside the standard keyboard repertoire, especially material by interesting composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. David Hackbridge Johnson (born 1963) has written hundreds of pieces, including 13 symphonies, but his music – definitely including his piano works – remains relatively little-known. Lowell Liebermann’s new Steinway & Sons release stands to remedy the neglect through world première recordings of seven Nocturnes, Bell-Fanfare, the two Barcarolle Elegies, and the six Calligraphic Poems. Johnson’s music has an immediately apparent personal style that Liebermann clearly finds highly congenial, although this does not mean Johnson’s piano works will likely find a significant new audience on the basis of this very well-recorded CD. The reason is that the same factors that a pianist would find attractive here – unusual harmonies, distinctive tone-painting, a very personal approach to tonality, constant rhythmic variation – can make the music somewhat challenging to hear. That is of course not a bad thing in itself, but listeners should be prepared for Johnson’s learned, sensitive and unusual approach to composition and to the piano. Thus, the mood of the first two nocturnes is dark, almost phantasmal – the first is called Notturno Spettrale, the second Notturno Misterioso – but the Chopin homage promised in the first piece is less than obvious. And Johnson has a very expansive view of the nocturne form, with some of these pieces running about three minutes but one (No. 3) lasting almost 11 and sounding much more like a dark fantasia. All the Nocturnes qualify as night music, but the nights they illustrate range from the calm of No. 5 to the initially relaxed but then more-disturbed No. 4 to the spooky No. 7 (“The Devil’s Lyre”), which is replete with dynamic contrasts. Bell-Fanfare is short and proclamatory, while the Barcarolle Elegies (the first Lento, the second Andante con moto) offer significantly contrasting moods. The Calligraphic Poems are perhaps the most accessible music on the disc, the shortest running less than two minutes and the longest less than four. Offering contrasting moods and motions, with considerable clarity in the piano writing, these are attractive miniatures that constantly hint at Impressionism without ever becoming strictly illustrative. Liebermann manages to treat each piece as a complete work in its own right while also fitting all six together into an attractive aural display. Johnson’s piano works, at least those heard here, show him to be a careful and thoughtful craftsman with a strong grasp of the piano’s expressive capabilities, and with little interest in display for its own sake or in making the piano sound non-pianistic (or meta-pianistic), as is the preference of a number of contemporary composers. The disc bears repeated listening in order to provide a strong sense of Johnson’s aesthetic – and for those who find the music congenial, these piano works will surely whet the appetite for works written by Johnson for other instruments.

-- Infodad

British composer David Hackbridge Johnson (b. 1963) has produced a body of more than 400 works, including 15 Symphonies, 3 Operas, 10 String Quartets, choral works, and many works for piano solo, and is also active as a jazz musician. And yet up until now I hadn't heard one single note of his music, and it seems that most of his output has yet to be performed. I can't speak for his orchestral writing, but as far as his piano music reveals, this is a composer concerned more with the euphonious and sonorous qualities of the instrument, rather than with form and structure. He himself states within the booklet notes: "I had a chance to get a feel for the resonance of the instrument through its sustaining and colouristic qualities." Some of his pieces, like the Third and Fourth Nocturnes for example, do present structural and harmonic development through the use of repeated patterns, motifs and sequences, and a hint of late Scriabin harmonic textures, but generally speaking, sound rather than substance drive a piece forward. He often combines, to great effect, notes that produce a sound similar to the subharmonic sonic characteristics of chimes or bells.

Needless to say that this casts a shadowy, ethereal, almost nightmarish pall over the music. Expressive touches that pianist Lowell Liebermann, to whom the Nocturne No. 7, Op. 405 "The Devil's Lyre" is dedicated, captures and projects all too well. Liebermann's own compositions on a recent recording titled Personal Demons, touched upon the same nightly apparitions. He avoids applying his own persona or perspective on the music, allowing it instead to speak for itself through its multifarious tones and colours. This is not music to be assimilated through the scaffolding of the intellect, but rather music to cause the mind to drift, and impress on the senses.

-- Classical Music Sentinal

One of America's preeminent living composers, Lowell Liebermann (b. 1961) has written more than 130 works, two of which, Sonata for Flute and Piano and the piano setting Gargoyles, have been recorded over twenty times apiece. Opera treatments of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts also have been enthusiastically received, and his memorable ballet score to the stage production of Frankenstein recently appeared on Reference Recordings. These two exceptional collections from Steinway & Sons make resoundingly clear, however, that Liebermann's as formidable a pianist as he is composer. Whereas the most recent set is devoted entirely to material by David Hackbridge Johnson, his 2021 debut solo piano release augments three works by Liebermann himself with ones by Schubert, Busoni, Liszt, and Miloslav Kabelác...

For his follow-up to Personal Demons, Liebermann initially planned to again feature works by multiple figures but ultimately decided to focus exclusively on contemporary British composer David Hackbridge Johnson (b. 1963). After a friend brought him to Liebermann's attention, contact was made, an online friendship developed, and months later Hackbridge Johnson, after expressing admiration for Personal Demons, informed the pianist that the recording had inspired him to write a brand new piece, Nocturne No. 7, “The Devil's Lyre.” After falling under its spell, Liebermann directed his attention to the composer's other piano works and quickly decided that the multi-composer project he'd been considering would instead be a collection featuring Hackbridge Johnson only.

Issued under the eye-catching title The Devil's Lyre, the album's world premiere recordings provide a stellar introduction to Hackbridge Johnson's idiosyncratic soundworld. Liebermann smartly describes his counterpart's music as “difficult to categorize, as it subscribes to no compositional dogmas.” In the pianist's view, Hackbridge Johnson is neither a tonal nor atonal composer; instead, he goes where his musical curiosity leads and never fails to imprint his personal stamp upon the result. Adding to the composer's mystique, while he's created over 400 works (including three operas, fifteen symphonies, ten string quartets, nineteen piano sonatas, and over 100 songs), much of it remains unpublished and unperformed; three volumes of orchestral music (on Toccata Classics) and The Devil's Lyre are the sole recordings to date to document his work.

The album opens with seven nocturnes, which encompass a tonal universe so expansive it could be regarded as a microcosm of the composer's monumental world. The first in the series is an explicit Chopin homage, with Hackbridge Johnson noting as well that several direct Chopin references emerge, albeit given a ghostly treatment through the application of pedal effects and reharmonisation. True enough, there is a deeply brooding, even nightmarish quality to the piece that perhaps reflects the composer's fondness for the writings of M. R. James and H. P. Lovecraft. That subtly macabre tone carries over into the atmospheric second nocturne, this one including “Notturno Misterioso: From an occult notebook” in its title. At ten minutes-plus the longest piece on the sixty-nine-minute recording, the oft-majestic third feels positively life-affirming by comparison in the way its lyrical expressions breathe fresh, noxious-free air into the exploration. The bell-like character that's often cited in reference to Hackbridge Johnson's work surfaces here too, though it's far from being the only time that happens on the release. Whereas the largely gentle fourth resonates as a moving lament, the lilting fifth finds the composer delving into a serenading salon music style and the sixth gravitating in a Chopin-esque direction. Closing the circle, the eerie seventh returns us to the ominous realm inhabited by the first two in the series.

In keeping with its title, the intricate study Bell-Fanfare, Op. 369 reverberates with clangorous chords and chiming patterns. Of the two Barcarolle-Elegies, Op. 160, Liebermann writes that the tone of the first might be traced to the death of the composer's spouse in 2004, which exerted a profound impact on his life and work, and in fact the composer acknowledges that the two elegies “came out of bereavement for my first wife, Carol Fine.” Rage, unapologetic and defiant, comes through in the first; if the bell-toned second is less violent, it still conveys the sadness that lingers long after the fact of the actual event. An inscription on the score of Calligraphic Poems, Op. 224 clarifies that its six parts were inspired by Japanese calligraphy and Asian culture in general. Naturally, such inclinations are refracted through the prism of Hackbridge Johnson's sensibility, and consequently the evocative suite registers as a fully authentic creation by the composer as opposed to an exercise in imitation. That said, there are intimations of an Asian influence, with the composer himself likening pauses in the fourth to moments when the calligrapher raises the brush before making a stroke.

One comes away from the recordings awed by Liebermann's pianistic prowess, not to mention impressed by the stamina and concentration he demonstrates in bringing the lengthier pieces into being. He serves both himself and Hackbridge Johnson extremely well in his essaying of the material, and if there's any justice the releases should do much to enhance appreciations of their respective works. The sound quality of both releases is exceptional, and the presentation by Steinway & Sons handsome. Each was recorded at Blue Griffin's Studio “The Ballroom” in Lansing, Michigan with Sergei Kvitko producing and engineering, Personal Demons during August and November in 2020 and The Devil's Lyre in June 2021. Collapsing the distance even further between the releases, the piano played by Liebermann on both is the same Steinway Model D. The clarity achieved in the recording of these performances makes listening to the releases an immensely rewarding experience.

-- Textura

American pianist Lowell Liebermann performs premiere recordings of piano works by British composer David Hackbridge Johnson (b. 1963), whose compositional voice he describes as "powerful, unrepentantly melodic, superbly crafted, and with an idiosyncratic harmonic sense." Now David Hackbridge Johnson has also been called one of the music world's best kept secrets, and this despite the fact that he has composed a very rich oeuvre, and has done so since the age of 11. In addition to his large-scale symphonic works, he composed a great deal of piano music, including 12 sonatas and many smaller pieces, some of which Liebermann has selected for his CD. As a performer, composer, writer and educator, Hackbridge Johnson has a wide-ranging activity, which perhaps explains why he does not promote his music better. The highest opus number on the CD is Opus 405, which confirms that the composer indeed has already composed a lot. But he is certainly not an assembly line-producer. In addition to the qualities listed by Liebermann, one can mention those of ingenuity. The album that begins with his imaginative Nocturnes features with Bell Fanfare and Barcarolle Elegies, Hackbridge Johnson's penchant for bell-like sounds. The Calligraphic Poems, in turn, have a very different character. They were inspired by images of 20th century Japanese calligraphy. The composer has made the colors and style of these drawings his own, and Lowell Liebermann succeeds in making the beautiful lines of the pieces audible. Throughout, the performances and recordings on this release are excellent and a great argument to look into this composer's music.

-- Pizzicato

Lowell Liebermann’s new album, fresh on the heels of his Personal Demons, which interspersed some of his own piano compositions with music that has haunted him throughout his career, is titled The Devil’s Lyre. One might think it’s a follow-up installment in an ongoing series of darkly spirit-themed recordings—perhaps with a program of fire-inspired music entitled Inferno next in line. And there is indeed a connection between this album and the previous one, but that’s not it.

David Hackbridge Johnson has composed over 500 works, of which only a dozen or so have been recorded, in three volumes of orchestral compositions on Toccata Classics. Liebermann was impressed enough by these selections to initiate a correspondence with Johnson; Johnson, in turn, was inspired by Personal Demons to write his Seventh Nocturne, to which he gave the title “The Devil’s Lyre.” Liebermann was sketching out potential programs of works by living composers for his next recording and asked Johnson’s permission to include this nocturne. After exploring Johnson’s piano works further, though, Liebermann decided to record an all-Johnson program.

It’s quite unusual for someone with Lowell Liebermann’s name recognition to devote a project to a colleague with almost no name recognition—and that choice is related to something that I appreciated about Liebermann’s programming on Personal Demons: he plays what moves him, whether it’s a seldom-programmed work by Schubert or an entire album of music by a composer who deserves much more attention than he has thus far received. Thus, along with his considerable technical abilities and his innate musical sensitivity, Liebermann brings a palpable commitment to and belief in the repertoire he records.

What is Johnson’s music like? I’m tempted to think of his work (at least as represented on this program) as an extension of Impressionism—not because there is an overlap between his harmonies or textures and those of Debussy (there is not), but because of the way in which added notes and mini-clusters obscure his harmonies, implying something familiar while stopping short of stating it outright. There is a dreamscape quality to much of Johnson’s writing here. Consider, for example, his First Nocturne, entitled “Notturno Spettrale: Hommage à Chopin.” The bass ostinato of Chopin’s Barcarolle provides the bass line for much of the nocturne, but transformed from major mode to minor and surrounded by resonant bell-like bass clusters and gentle treble chords far removed from the ostinato’s harmonic center. Misty references to three of Chopin’s nocturnes further convey a sense of musical material coming up from the subconscious or out of a dream. Lengthy stretches of pedal amplify this sense even more.

Simultaneity or coexistence of disparate ideas is prominent in much of this program. The Second Nocturne, “Notturno Misterioso: From an occult notebook,” is based on multiple repetitions of a highly distinctive theme—a series of mostly-descending notes that range from mid-treble to low bass. But Johnson harmonizes this theme with a series of chords both outside the theme’s tonality and independent of its meter. The nocturne’s drama stems from intensifying or receding levels of disjunction between the theme and its surroundings.

For a listener seeking the most comfortable entry into Johnson’s sound world, I recommend either the Fourth or Fifth Nocturne. The Fourth begins with an expressive songlike texture: a simple four-measure bass ostinato and a largely stepwise melody ornamented by repeated notes and trills. It is expressive and bleak, in an almost entirely diatonic minor at first. Independent voices begin to accrue about halfway through, emphasizing one or another of the motivic elements of either melody or accompaniment, and dissonances accumulate as a chromatic descant vies with a thickened, arpeggiated accompaniment. But there is never a moment at which the ear will struggle to find the thread or to grasp the piece’s emotional trajectory. The Fifth Nocturne is a warm, French-inflected idyll. A nostalgic descending melody sings above a spacious quarter-note accompaniment. The middle section is a witty progression of piquant ornaments and high-treble bell tones that quickly leads back to an even more poignant statement of the initial material. In these nocturnes (and throughout the disc), Liebermann’s extraordinary ear for harmony is on full display. He knows just how long a dissonance needs to hang in the air before it is ready to resolve; he knows how much space to give a thicker sonority so that the ear can digest it fully; he knows which notes to emphasize in a series of tightly voiced treble chords to allow the ear to follow the progression.

The Bell-Fanfare is an effective exploration of sonority, featuring rapidly clanging pentatonic figuration over sturdy low bass pedals, as well as gently chiming repeated chords over mighty single-note statements. Liebermann offers a splendid wealth of articulation and an impressive range of dynamics. My only criticism is that his martellato playing can be slightly jolting in contrast to the usual warmth of his tone. The two Barcarolle Elegies are a bit more severe than the other selections on the recording; the first is based on a desolate chromatic motif, played both at maximum volume in the bass and in quiet chords in the treble for an ongoing drama of contrasts. The second, with a more traditional barcarolle rhythm and a melody of repeated notes reminiscent of a mandolin, is more lyrical but builds to an outpouring of devastated outrage. These are not delicate idealizations of grief; they are musicalizations of the visceral, messy emotional turmoil that grief occasions.

The Calligraphic Poems are mostly transparent in texture and largely delicate in harmony, though with plenty of low-bass bell tones. Johnson makes excellent use of polymodality and shifts in meter. Not having seen the score, I can’t say for certain, but it sounds like some motifs are shared among the pieces, creating a unified, self-referential set. My favorites are the poignant first, the playful fourth, and the meditative fifth. Especially in the fifth, Liebermann demonstrates his knack for developing almost orchestral timbres from the various registers of the piano: a sustained cello-like tone in the bass or a chattery woodwind choir in rapidly repeated treble chords. All six of the poems come through in vivid color.

As with any unfamiliar music that bears the unique stamp of its creator, it is likely to take several rounds of listening to absorb Johnson’s work. But even a cursory listening will leave no doubt that there is something special in his writing—and Lowell Liebermann’s finely attuned interpretations of this music make for a superb introduction to it. Now, when can we hear Johnson’s remaining 500 compositions? 

-- Fanfare

"...In the final section of this overview, I turn my attention to Hackbridge Johnson’s piano music, which affords the music-lover a good view of another side of his craft. First offered is a set of seven Nocturnes, the mood of which is quite dark, certainly appropriate for works encompassing aspects of the night. The first of them is subtitled “Hommage à Chopin,” and is based on the left-hand introduction, repeated throughout the work, of one of the Polish master’s best-known examples in the genre. Above that, the right hand plays block chords and filagree that couldn’t be further removed from anything Chopin ever wrote, but the piece coheres impressively despite (or perhaps because of) this stylistic disparity. The style of the Nocturnes generally ranges from aggressively dissonant (as in the second of the set) to freely tonal (as in the third). His skill in writing in any style whatsoever is on full display in each of these pieces, and most of them work up to one or more intense climaxes somewhere during their course.

Bells figure rather predominately in a number of this composer’s works, and none less than the Bell-Fanfare. I found the unique sonorities and textures in this brief work to be some of the most captivating in any of the piano works presented here. Also heard here are some of the “overlapping” sonorities I noted above in his orchestral writing. Some of these same characteristics also are to be heard in the earlier Barcarolle Elegies. The unrelenting agony of the first of them reflects Hackbridge Johnson’s grief in the loss of his first wife. In Calligraphic Poems the composer pays tribute to the various 20th-century Japanese calligraphic artists whose work was displayed in an exhibition at the Library of Congress in 1984. These works, as much or more than any other piano pieces by this master, exhibit his ability to “orchestrate” in a multitude of colors on the seemingly mono-chromatic piano. I do hear some Eastern melodic and harmonic elements in this work, which serve to imbue them with a somewhat different flavor from that heard in the other works.

All these pieces are brilliantly executed by noted composer-pianist Lowell Liebermann, who not only plays this music as lovingly as if he’d written it himself, but has written the informative program notes for the Steinway & Sons CD. The piano sound is vibrant and thrilling throughout the disc, not only due to Liebermann’s impressive abilities as pianist, but also because of the skill of the engineer in capturing every nuance of his playing in such lifelike fashion. In summary, any one of the discs covered in this overview will provide an excellent introduction to the unique sound world of David Hackbridge Johnson, and doubtless one of these discs will be found on my next Want List."

-- Fanfare Read less