Red Garuda / Rilke Songs / Bagatelles /

Piano Quintet

Peter Serkin, James Conlon, New York Philharmonic, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Orion String Quartet

Bridge Records
First, a clarification: “Red Garuda” is not the name of  a gangster, a professional wrestler, or a rodeo cowboy. Garudas are colossal bird-like creatures that exist in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology. A golden Garuda is the symbol of Indonesia and the name of its national airline. A red Garuda is the national symbol of Thailand. More to the point of why contemporary American composer Peter Lieberson (b.1946) chose this title for his work for piano and orchestra, the Garuda is said to be capable of flying vast distances without tiring and of changing its shape and size. Thus, the creature can be taken as an emblem of absolute freedom, of a life unrestricted by conventional limitations. The inspiration for the creative artist is clear. As Lieberson explains it, “Before I began composing the piece, I had a dream vision of sitting on the back of a huge Garuda flying over different kinds of landcapes.” The work premiered, significantly, in 1999, the year the composer married his wife, the late, beloved mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. The wonderful upsurge of powerful emotion one encounters in the 25 minute work may well reflect the joy he felt at this time.

 Red Garuda is listed as Lieberson’s second piano concerto, but is really more a symphonic poem with a piano soloist, much in the way that Scriabin’s Poem of Fire is. The analogy is not an idle one, as Lieberson employs Scriabinesque pulsating chords, tubular bells, and powerful contributions from the lower strings and bass drum to portray the Garuda’s emergence from the darkness and the apprehensive atmosphere of a pre-dawn world. This striking introduction, powerfully realized by pianist Peter Serkin and by the New York Philharmonic under James Conlon, gives way to variations symbolizing the ancient elements of Fire, Water, and Earth combined with Wind, as the Garuda soars over continents and oceans.

Eastern mythology is one thing. But when it comes to the verse of German language Austro-Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), that’s something else! I must confess I’m beyond my depth when it comes to explicating lines such as “Oh be inspired for the flame, in which a Thing disppears and bursts into something else; the spirit of re-creation which masters this earthly form, loves most the pivoting point where you are no longer yourself.” While even Lieberson admits there are lines in Rilke that defy exact explanation, the sense one gets in Rilke of continual transformation, of becomings rather than endings, obviously appeals strongly to him as a composer. That he could draw on the interpretive insights of his wife and of his frequent collaborator Peter Serkin in his settings of five of Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus” was definitely to his advantage. I was especially impressed with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s considerable prowess as a song interpreter, which is essential in re-creating the sense of a very difficult and often paradoxical poet, and then expressing it in terms of pure lyricism.

I wasn’t as taken with Lieberson’s three Bagatelles (1985), partly because the titles puzzled me. My notion of a “bagatelle” is that of a trifle or an amusing anecdote, something lighter in mood than these somber piano pieces. “Proclamation” bears out its name musically well enough, but “Spontaneous Songs” seems a misnomer for a group of short subjects that strike me as rather hesitant and not terribly lyrical at all, and “Nocturne” might have been a better title for the restlessly probing third movement that Lieberson calls “The Dance.”

I’m more sanguine about Lieberson’s Piano Quintet (2003), an energetic work that further benefits from an outstanding performance by Serkin and the Orion String Quartet (Daniel Phillips and Todd Phillips, violins; Steve Tenenbom, viola; and Timothy Eddy, cello). By this time, Serkin had been performing with the Orions for years, going back to the old days at Marlboro, and its shows in the solid mutual support these musicans give one another. The spirit of Cape Breton folk fiddling permeates the mood and rhtyhms of this music, evoking a place with strong associations for the composer. Part I of the work is in the form of a fantasy based on a four-note motif heard early-on. There is a brief interlude, the theme of which becomes the subject of a finely wrought fugue in Part II which builds to a vigorous climax. We have a recolection of earlier material, including a terse quotation of the four-note motif that we heard at the beginning, and then it all ends suddenly, good night and good luck!

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