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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. calls his music “consistently engaging, colorful, tuneful, and approachable.”

Album Credits:
Recorded August 24 – 27 & November 28, 2020 at Blue Griffin’s Studio “The Ballroom”, Lansing, Michigan
Producer/Engineer: Sergei
Read more 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 Kvitko
Design: Cover to Cover Design, Anilda Carrasquillo

It is an honor to recommend the double-CD set on the Steinway & Sons label entitled Personal Demons, featuring world-renowned composer Lowell Liebermann (, 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 Kabelác (1908-1979) who is often compared to Leos Janácek or Bohuslav Martinu. 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 Kabelác (1908-1979). A prominent Czech composer whose career was hamstrung by the Communist rule of his nation during his creative life, Kabelác 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.


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 Kabelác’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 Kabelác. 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 influence 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 affinity 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 Janácek follower Miloslav Kabelác, 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

I must begin this review with a disclaimer. I performed Lowell Liebermann’s Gargoyles on my New York debut recital in 1993. I visited Liebermann several times for coaching on the piece before the recital; he was helpful and encouraging as well as rigorously demanding as we fine-tuned my interpretation, and he wrote me an extremely gracious note after the concert. I have corresponded with him a handful of times in the years since, and I think highly of him and of his music. I was eager to hear his interpretation both of Gargoyles and of his other compositions on this recording; I was also eager to hear Liebermann’s performance of Liszt’s solo version of the Totentanz, which I had also studied earlier in my performance career. And I am very much a fan of Miloslav Kabelác’s music and anticipated that Liebermann’s sensibilities would be a fine match for Kabelác’s 8 Preludes. I share this background solely in the interest of disclosure; despite my personal curiosity about this recording, I trust that readers will find my review uncolored by personal context.

Liebermann’s Gargoyles is his most frequently performed piano work, ArkivMusic currently lists six recordings of it aside from Liebermann’s own. Most of these recordings do not focus exclusively on contemporary repertoire; Gargoyles is programmed alongside Beethoven sonatas, Schumann’s Carnaval, and Czerny variations in a consistent acknowledgment of its position as standard concert repertoire. The Gargoyles are contemporary but not experimental, and they are unabashedly communicative, with musical material that is simultaneously bracing and readily followed on first hearing. The second and third of the four-piece set are introspective and bittersweet; the outer movements are full of rhythmic drive and pianistic showmanship. I am not one to consider a composer’s interpretation to be inherently definitive; I prefer Gilels’s performance of Shostakovich’s final Prelude and Fugue to Shostakovich’s own, for example. And Liebermann faces some stiff competition on the Gargoyles. Stephen Hough plays the final piece with superhuman speed and incredible bite. It’s wildly stirring; but Liebermann’s interpretation is sneakier, more inexorable: a gargoyle that looms and teases. And Liebermann’s crisp articulation and quicksilver shifts in dynamics in the first piece show off a formidable technique. His singing tone and delicate phrasing in the middle two pieces is exquisite, though he tends to offset melodic emphases with slight pauses, which I find interrupts rather than highlights the direction of the phrase. In short, I thoroughly recommend Liebermann’s performance, while noting that one of the joys of a work as widely performed as Gargoyles is that it has attracted numerous divergent but highly effective interpretations.

Liebermann’s Apparitions were written for David Korevaar, who recorded them in 1989. Korevaar’s performance is more lyrical, more impressionistic than Liebermann’s own. And that is a thoroughly valid and attractive approach. But whereas, for Korevaar, the quiet filigree that begins the Third Apparition is wholly delicate, for Liebermann, it is a foreshadowing of the storm that soon erupts. He plays it no less quietly than does Korevaar, but he brings a welcome brittleness to its articulation. Similarly, whereas Korevaar imbues the descending minor triad that repeats throughout much of the First Apparition with a hypnotic feeling, Liebermann treats it as an idée fixe. Liebermann plays the Second and Fourth Apparitions—deeply introspective, almost reverent explorations of brief melodic ideas—with tremendous subtlety. There is an astonishingly valedictory feeling to these pieces that were written when the composer was not quite 25 years old. Of Liebermann’s Tenth Nocturne, written in 2007 in one focused three-hour stretch in response to Gian Carlo Menotti’s death, all that needs to be said is that it is a piece of great tendresse, full of fantasy and longing, and Liebermann’s performance embodies its emotional world convincingly.

The other pieces on this recital are works that Liebermann has “been personally haunted by” and that have “preoccupied and inspired” him throughout his career. None of them are standard repertoire, but, except for the Kabelác, all of them are what I might call standard-adjacent repertoire. Liszt’s Totentanz, for example, is thoroughly familiar (albeit hardly overprogrammed) in its piano-and-orchestra format, but how many pianists play it in its solo version? Similarly, given the vastness of Schubert’s output, listeners might not be surprised to come across something they haven’t heard before—especially a miniature or an occasional piece. But the Variations on a Theme by Anselm Hütterbrenner is a substantial, extensive piece, currently in print on only two other recordings in ArkivMusic’s database. And Busoni’s transcriptions get far more airtime than his compositions. This is programming that will hold great interest for general listeners as much as for Liebermann fans who are curious about the composer’s musical interests.

In these pieces, Liebermann shows himself to be adept in interpreting a wide variety of musical idioms, a fine technician, and a sensitive, subtle communicator of emotion. His Schubert expertly combines warmth and nobility, along with an otherworldly, valedictory feeling of the sort he achieves in his own Apparitions. It is more akin to Kempff’s than Richter’s in its introspection, though it is just slightly more Romantic in its approach. In the Liszt, Liebermann keeps the piece’s macabre content at the forefront, whereas (in the concerto version) Zimerman gives the central lyrical passages an ecstatic, almost erotic charge. Liebermann’s approach is probably truer to the spirit of the piece; Zimerman’s to the idiom of the Romantic concerto. I would have liked to have heard a bit more humor in some of the racing, mischievous passagework toward the end of the piece. I also find that, though Liebermann is entirely equal to the piece’s technical demands, he doesn’t project the no-big-deal comfort of a Byron Janis or a Martha Argerich. What he does do, crucially for this solo version, is to invest the piano with an astonishing wealth of orchestral color. One can readily hear when the piano takes on the quality of a trombone, a timpani, or a clarinet.

Miloslav Kabelác’s best known work is The Mystery of Time, a relentlessly pessimistic orchestral piece that moves from bleakness to violence and back. His eight symphonies were released as a 4-CD set about five years ago; over the course of a wide variety in harmonic language, Kabelác maintains a striking consistency of emotional affect: intensely serious and overwhelmingly grim. The Eight Preludes, dating from 1955–56, are no exception. They have been recorded a handful of times. In previous recordings, I have been struck by their air of resignation, in comparison to Kabelác’s more enraged orchestral music. But Liebermann brings all the intensity of Kabelác’s larger compositions to these miniatures (without skimping in any way on their more lyrical qualities). From the first notes of the Preludio Ostinato with which the series opens, it is obvious that trouble is brewing; Liebermann treats the four-note ostinato as a locus of obsession, whereas Daniel Wiesner handles it at first with delicacy and warmth, as if it might develop into a Romantic lullaby. Liebermann saves the sweetness for the Third Prelude, the Preludio Sognante, in a profoundly meditative, searching performance. My only criticism is that in the heavier preludes, such as the Preludio Corale, Liebermann seems to want more sound from the piano than it can produce. It’s not that he bangs; his tone is never harsh. But there are times when the sheer level of sound precludes the piano from speaking clearly. Perhaps this is a matter of microphone placement; but perhaps, when the music is at its most intense, Liebermann doesn’t differentiate between layers of sound quite as much as is needed.

In some ways, Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappunistica is the most challenging for a listener to absorb. It is over half an hour of improvisatory cadenza-like passages, dense fugues (including much use of the B-A-C-H motive), and extensions of tonality. Liebermann achieves an impressive level of clarity throughout the counterpoint and brings a welcome dream-like air to Busoni’s interludes and cadenzas; it is as if the musical rhetoric enters…well…a fugue state in these passages before returning to new intensifications of rigor and discipline. Adrian Corleonis has written extensively in these pages about previous recordings of the Fantasia, warning that there is a critical mass of “clueless, dull performances…in which fantasy capitulates to contrapuntal rigor, or rigor mortis” (35:2). Liebermann’s is in no way one of these. It is full of momentum and intensity, and he recognizes the counterpoint as an emotional rather than an academic working-through of musical material. (But don’t throw away Egon Petri’s recording, which maintains an even more perfect balance between grandeur, buoyancy, virtuosity, introspection, and sheer quirkiness.)

This recording offers a most welcome insight into an important composer’s conception of his own work and of work that has been critical to his development. It is also all-around excellent playing and a joy to hear. I recommend it highly.

-- Fanfare

This outstanding double album, released mark Liebermann’s 60th birthday, offers an intelligently conceived programme performed with great bravura and interpretative insight. Liebermann is a prolific composer, often regarded as conservative – though his beautifully-crafted music resists pigeonholing, and is championed by major soloists including Stephen Hough.

The album opens with Liebermann’s sprightly, atmospheric and virtuosic Gargoyles (1989), his most-performed piano work. His ghostly, tenebrous Four Apparitions (1985) were inspired by Brahms’ late piano works. On this evidence, Liebermann is a maverick conservative who writes communicative music.

The characterful, eventful Eight Preludes of Czech composer Miloslav Kabelác (1908-1979) have received only two other recordings. A student of Hába and Schulhoff, Kabelác is often compared with Janácek or Martinu. His broadly tonal music features unusual modes inspired by Gregorian chant and non- Western genres. These fragile, lyrical pieces, as Liebermann rightly comments, have a ‘jewel- like clarity... an ascetic economy of means with intense expressivity’.

The pianist beautifully captures the dramatic qualities of Schubert’s neglected Variations on a Theme of Anselm Hüttenbrenner in a pellucid interpretation. Though less monumental, these magisterial variations belong with the Goldbergs, Diabellis, Brahms’ tribute to Handel and Rachmaninov’s to Paganini, as a highpoint of the classical repertoire.

The third neglected masterwork is the weightiest – Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica, which reflects his love of Bach, and tendency towards gigantomania. Busoni remains an underappreciated modernist who approached greatness, and who clearly appeals to a fellow pianist-composer. Liebermann’s interpretation of the Fantasia is powerfully effective but has formidable rivals. Geoffrey Madge, in his remarkable set of complete Busoni piano works, perhaps has the edge, with a surer grasp of tension and release over the longer span, and greater rhythmic suppleness. The album closes with a tender interpretation of Liebermann’s own elegaic Nocturne No 10 (2007).

-- International Piano

"Lowell Liebermann has had a splendid career as a composer. His work is simultaneously challenging, eminently communicative, and deeply personal. Liebermann is also a fine pianist, as his first commercial recording amply demonstrates. The program includes performances of his own works, along with works that have been particularly meaningful to him. Of particular note is his fiery yet introspective performance of Miloslav Kabelác’s Eight Preludes—a work deserving of far greater recognition, in a performance that advocates for it compellingly. Liebermann’s insights into his own compositions make for very attractive listening, and his performances of other composers’ works are first-rate."

-- Fanfare

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.

Liebermann's recording debut as a pianist is distinguished by his own Gargoyles, Four Apparitions, and Nocturne No. 10 but also tremendous readings of pieces that have haunted him throughout his professional life. Noteworthy for both its thoughtful curation and inspired performances, Personal Demons is a dazzling recital that captures the composer meeting virtuosic challenges with immense poise. Interestingly, three of the four works by the composers he chose to augment his own adapt pre-existing themes: Liszt's Totentanz deploys the Gregorian chant Dies Irae as its springboard; Schubert's uses a string quartet theme by his close friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner; and Busoni's is a titanic elaboration on J. S. Bach's final fugue.

The release begins with Gargoyles, Op. 29, which premiered in 1989 and has become Liebermann's most performed work. Whereas its “grotesque and aqueous atmospheric nature” (his words) would seem to suggest the title had been in place from the work's inception and dictated its tone, it suggested itself surreptitiously when the composer, working on the final page of the fourth part, glanced under his piano and noticed three plaster reproductions of the famous Notre Dame creatures. As different as the four movements are, common to all is an opening three-note motif that surfaces throughout in various forms. After its voicing, the initiating movement dances deliriously for a captivating two minutes; the aromatic adagio that follows entrances also. If sparkling arpeggios and a flowing melody line intensify the dreamlike character of the third movement, dense chordal patterns lend the closing one the greatest drive of the four. Composed in 1985, Four Apparitions, Op. 17 perpetuates the haunting character of Gargoyles, even if its material is slightly less macabre. The title—again chosen only as the music neared completion—is in keeping with the music's pensive, mysterious, and ghostly qualities. The release ends with Nocturne No. 10, written in 2007 in memory of Gian Carlo Menotti and fittingly tender yet also, like the other Liebermann works, auspicious for its harmonic daring. In terms of time, his pieces are dwarfed by the sum-total of the others, yet the recording, just shy of two hours, strikes a balanced impression when his three leave such a lasting mark.

Of the five presented on the release, it's Czech composer Miloslav Kabelác who's the least known, in North America at least. Liebermann's observation that Eight Preludes, Op. 30 (1956) couples “ascetic economy of means with intense expressivity” is particularly astute. In terms of dynamics and style, the settings range widely, with tonal character intimated by their titles. Whereas some reference form (“Ostinato,” “Chorale”), others allude to mood (“Dreams,” “Nocturne,” “Aria”), and one is awed by Liebermann's performance and his bravura renderings of “Chorale” and “Soaring.” Completed in 1864, Liszt's solo piano transcription of his Totentanz (Dance of Death) makes good on its bewitching title and is treated to an enthralling performance. With the familiar Dies Irae theme surfacing intermittently, the sixteen-minute showstopper advances through its double set of variations and gently lyrical and thunderous episodes with focused deliberation.

The titular motif in Schubert's Variations on a theme by Anselm Hüttenbrenner (1817) is, in Liebermann's estimation, unmistakably similar to the one in the second movement of Beethoven's seventh symphony. No matter: the material seduces when the pianist illuminates the material with a superb rendition marked by clarity of phrasing and articulation. As impressive as the performances of the Liszt and Schubert works are, they're surpassed by the breathtaking one given Busoni's Fantasia Contrappuntistica (1910). The detailed structural notes Liebermann provides about the travelogue are entirely worth digesting; however, the thirty-two-minute ride is so scenic, absorbing, probing, and panoramic that experiencing the performance in all its visceral glory sans the supplemental info is plentifully rewarding on its own.

...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

The composer and pianist Lowell Liebermann has recorded a demanding, very personal program for Steinway & Sons. In his booklet text, Liebermann notes that the selection consists of his own works and those that 'haunt' him, which he wishes he had written. There is Liszt’s Dance of Death in the 1865 version, Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica in the version for piano solo from 1910, Schubert’s Hüttenbrenner Variations from 1817 and Miloslac Kabelá?’s eight Preludes op. 30 from 1956.

Liebermann knows how to make the grand piano sound in very different ways, not just through atmospheric density or breathtaking technical skill - the 'overall package' is right. The variety of moods created can hardly be counted, the identification of the interpreter with the music is immediately noticeable at every moment, even where Liebermann deals with the musical text in an almost improvisatory way. The exciting complement of three compositions by Liebermann, 'Gargoyles' op. 29 (1989), Four Apparitions op. 17 (1985) and the Nocturne No. 10 op. 99 (2007) completes the spectrum in an excellent way. Particularly worth mentioning here is the preparation of the instrument, which deliberately avoids unnecessary brilliance, but offers the music a lot of room for development with clarity, warmth and atmospheric density. An outstanding double album! [Translated from the original German]

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