Peter Lieuwen is not your everyday composer. In an online interview, he is relaxed and affable, even laid back. He does not match the feverish, passionate, Romantic image of the composer. His personal qualities are evident in his music; Lieuwen definitely is at ease with himself. The style of the compositions on this disc may be broadly termed neo-Romantic, but actually there’s much more to them than that. There are touches of Minimalism, jazz, and Latin music. Some of Lieuwen’s rhythmic dynamism seems based directly on his experience touring in a rock band in his youth. Yet none of these influences appears applied capriciously. Taken as a whole, this music always sounds like Peter Lieuwen. His compositional method may have something to do with that. Lieuwen composes in his head, admitting that the actual process of creation takes him less time than the task of putting it down on paper. That’s the sort of facility which makes Mozart so intriguing. In Lieuwen’s case, I think it helps account for the clear lines and deliciously blended textures of his music. There is no padding in a Peter Lieuwen piece. He gets his ideas by improvising at the piano, where the timbre of a pattern of notes may appeal to him. Given his preoccupation with color, it’s not surprising that Lieuwen has his own sound, at once luminous and vibrant. He says that being familiar with the soloists he writes for encourages him to stretch the boundaries of his music; certainly that appears to be the case with the concertos on this album. All in all, the journey Lieuwen sets us upon on this CD is rich and rewarding.
In the Cello Concerto’s opening movement, dancing cello solos cascade within an orchestral texture tinged by Minimalism. The music’s joyous, affirmative quality bears some resemblance to Michael Torke. The next movement features reflective music for cello, with an orchestral sound not unlike Fauré. The cadenza is strikingly direct and original. Just before the concerto’s last chord, there is a woodwind outburst that poses a final puzzle for the listener. The Romance for Violin, Cello, and Piano did not appeal to me until the third time I listened to it. A continuum of piano figurations winds around alternately melismatic and vigorous lines from the strings. The total effect reminds me a little of Chopin’s Berceuse. The Vivace for String Orchestra began life as a movement from a guitar sonata. It is the sort of rhythmically and melodically felicitous miniature orchestral string sections would love to play. Lieuwen wrote the Concerto for Piano and Marimba for two brothers, Leonel and Jesus Morales. The first movement, without marimba, has a piano part influenced both by jazz and Bartók. Lieuwen deploys a large orchestra with verve and panache. When the marimba starts the next movement by itself, it seems like a visitor from another planet. The blend of the two soloists reminds me of a divinely inspired steel drum band. The concluding movement could be called Prokofiev meets Cal Tjader. Motoric toccata passages keep on provoking Latin replies, including a maraca. The concerto ends suddenly, providing no resolution to the dialogue.
The Piano and Marimba Concerto’s performance and recording are exceptional, while the remaining works are very good in those regards. The timings on the back cover for the Cello Concerto’s two movements are reversed. Now in his 60s, Peter Lieuwen definitely has found a distinctive voice as a composer. Leonard Bernstein used to remark that no one else could write his music; Lieuwen can make the same claim.