I’ve been a fan of Peter Lieuwen’s music ever since my first exposure to it in 36:4, when I reviewed his violin concerto and other works. In that issue the interested reader may also find more information about him in the feature attached to that review. One of the hallmarks of Lieuwen’s music is its crystalline clarity of line and structure. Its essentially tonal basis is augmented through interjections of non-chord sonorities, often only distantly related to the underlying harmony of the moment. His music is also characterized by all the rhythmic vitality of, say, an Appalachian Spring.
Opening the proceedings is Overland Dream, a lively 14-minute essay scored for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. In the interplay of the four instruments, motives are passed around constantly such that the texture is kept quite busy, and the work sparkles in its life affirming energy. It is intended as a musical portrait of the American West (Lieuwen has been a life-long resident of Texas, New Mexico, and California). Each time I visit that part of the country —and I’ve just returned from a trip to Arizona as I write this—I am impressed at how different it is from my home in Indiana, and not only in aspects of geography. The whole culture there seems almost foreign to my Midwestern mindset, although I still feel at home there as an American. Lieuwen has sought to represent his home turf through “open” intervals, a spaciousness in the structure of the piece, and even the use of the octatonic scale and pan- diatonic gestures. I’ll leave it as an open question whether I truly hear the West in this piece. To be sure, I do hear influence from Copland’s music, whose work (e.g. Rodeo or The Tender Land) often has associations with that portion of the American landscape.
Lieuwen’s Sonata for Guitar came about as a result of a question he asked his guitarist friend Isaac Bustos. The question was simply, “What does the guitar world need?” The immediate answer came, “A big sonata.” I can understand that: There have, of course, been some reasonably large-scale sonatas written for the instrument, including Manuel Ponce’s Sonata Mexicana and Sonata Meridonal, Fernando Sor’s Grand Sonata, and more contemporary sonatas by Castelnuovo-Tedesco and others, but the instrument has not been as well served in this genre as have most other instruments. Lieuwen’s offering is therefore an important a contribution to this body of literature.
Given its 16-minute duration over three movements, it is surely one of the largest-scale such works, too. The first movement is constructed from a series of asymmetric rhythmic cells, put together in lively, vigorous settings before shifting to a warmer and calmer middle section. The second movement, marked Tranquillo, is meant to portray space and beauty, and does so through gently flowing and often upward moving lines. Some exquisite harmonic shifts are encountered along the way, suggesting that Lieuwen’s heart is in the lyric and expressive element of music. The sonata closes with a fun Vivace knucklebuster, which dedicatee Bustos handles most adroitly. A running undercurrent of quick notes provides a foundation for melodic notes in the treble register of the instrument. The virtuosity that Bustos brings to this movement (and to the entire sonata) makes the piece scintillate.
Windjammer was written for the New Mexico Winds, and its vigorous opening reminds me a little of the faster portions of Stravinsky’s famous octet. There are some rather Stravinskian sonorities to be heard here, too, although this work would not be mistaken for anything by the great Russian composer. The rhythmic activity and pulsing is reminiscent of the first work on this recital, giving evidence of Lieuwen’s consistent compositional voice. The harmonies herein, however, are a notch more astringent than those of Overland Dream. Another commonality with Lieuwen’s other works is the inspiration from water, the motivating force behind his Living Waters and River of Crystal Light. In my interview of Lieuwen mentioned above, he stated, “The reflective light and movement of water suggests a broad spectrum of musical possibilities. For me, natural phenomena are perhaps the strongest inspiration and influence on my music.” Consequently, in this work, as in much of Lieuwen’s output, I hear the musical equivalent of light sparkling off of waves in a body of water. Lieuwen also cites jazz as an influence (its “improvisatory aura”) in this work, but I don’t hear it, at least overtly. The piece sounds quite structured to me, despite its asymmetrical elements.
Closing the CD is the Rhapsody for Violin and Piano. The opening of this piece does indeed sound improvisatory to me, with disparate elements brought into play in quick succession, and even a few jazz-like gestures incorporated into the mix. Dissonance and consonance play a tug-of-war to produce a very satisfying and ingenious synthesis. The work was commissioned and premiered by violinist Andrzej Grabiec, who performs it eloquently here. All of the performances of the works heard herein serve Lieuwen’s music very well, as does the recorded sound. This disc is not to be missed by fans of tonal contemporary music, of which I firmly count myself one. Most enthusiastically recommended.