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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

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 Read less