Peter LIEUWEN (b.1953) Concerto for cello and orchestra (2012) [21:34] / Romance for violin, cello and piano (1994, rev.2010) [10:02] / Vivace for string orchestra (2010) [5:23] / Concerto for piano, marimba and orchestra (2008) [27:01] Slovak National Symphony Orchestra/Franz Anton Krager / Texas Music Festival Orchestra/ Krager / Nicholas Jones (cello) (concerto); Leonel Morales (piano), Jesus Morales (marimba); Andrzej Grabiec (violin), Misha Quint (cello) Carlo Alessandro Lapegna (piano) MSR CLASSICS MS1582 [63:50]

Last year I had the privilege of writing a review of Peter Lieuwen’s orchestral work Astral Blue (2006) for MusicWeb International. It was released on a compilation by Metier (MSV28554). I wrote there that “I enjoyed every piece, but my discovery has to be Peter Lieuwen’s imaginative and very beautiful Astral Blue.” It was a perfect equilibrium of minimalism, impressionism and neo-classicism. It is good to have the opportunity to assess a number of other orchestral works by this composer.

The Vivace for string orchestra is an excellent place to begin an exploration of this CD. The work was originally the third movement of the composer’s Sonata for Guitar (2009). Lieuwen writes that he discovered “what a resonant ‘symphonic’ instrument the guitar really is”. It is not a notion that had struck me, but the effectiveness of the transcription from the “idiomatic guitar figurations” to the string orchestra is certainly impressive. The Vivace is a good example of the composer’s successful attempt to introduce “chromatic and dissonant” passages into his music, without eschewing the fundamentally tonal nature of the soundscape. Ostinatos and antiphonal passages work to good effect, with attractive harmonies juxtaposed with something a little more acerbic. The concept of pandiatonicism is prevalent – this is where the harmony is freely derived from any combination of the 7 notes of the scale without reference to their traditional “harmonic structural functions”.

The short Romance for violin, cello and piano (1994, rev. 2010) has a quote from Shakespeare at the head of the score ‘The course of true love never did run smooth’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act 1, Scene 1). The piece is clearly inspired by this sentiment. One moment the soloists are in perfect harmony or concord, the next the music is riven by ‘jagged’ dissonances and instrumental effects. The mood of disharmony grows as the work progresses, however, towards the end there appears to be a reconciliation (or is it a temporary truce?) between the lovers. It is finely written piece that makes an effective trio.

The introduction of a marimba into a composition is bound to give the music an exotic sound. Originally designed by African slaves in Central America, this instrument has become the national instrument of Guatemala. It is similar to the xylophone in construction, but is larger and has greater resonance. It is often found in jazz bands. A number of concertos for the instrument have been written over the years, including those by Paul Creston and Libby Larsen.

Lieuwen’s concerto, for Piano and Marimba was composed for the brothers Leonel and Jesus Morales. It received its first performance at the Texas Music Festival on 12 June 2010. The work is in three movements and is scored for a large orchestra including a vast array of percussion. The first movement features only the piano. This is a complex structure that explores a variety of moods, both lugubrious and playful and makes use of a wide stylistic vocabulary. The middle movement is signed to be played as “placid”. There is a wee bit more edge to the music that this direction would imply. However, the mood is typically lyrical with the piano and the marimba in dialogue. The finale – “incisive and spirited” – is a tour de force of “heavy syncopation, asymmetric meters, [and] evocative gestures”. Once again dissonance is a welcome tool. It has a definite ‘Latin beat’ to it. The virtuosity of each player is never in doubt. It is a brilliant and satisfying peroration.

I have left the Cello Concerto (2012) until last. It is a splendid work that exploits a number of musical styles and moods which include “lively syncopation derived from jazz and rock music, impressionistic harmonies, and minimalist textures”. The composer explains that the concerto is scored for a small orchestra, typical of the 18th century: it does not feature low brass or added percussion. This scoring adds to the intimate effect of the work. Once again Lieuwen utilises a considerable palette of colour and effect. The work was composed for the cellist Nicholas Jones, who performs the work here.

My review of this splendid repertoire is aided and abetted by the liner notes which provided all the relevant contextual information. They are written by the composer.

My only criticism of this outstanding disc is the artwork. Why do CD companies seem to insist on putting ‘artistic endeavour’ before utility? I was unable to read the recording information on the rear cover- blue on slightly lighter blue. I had to dismantle the jewel case and scan in the cover and enlarge. Fortunately, the liner notes themselves were clearly legible.

This is a fascinating journey through a diverse selection of Peter Lieuwen’s orchestral music. Each work is a “world premiere recording”. The composer could not have wished for better advocates for his music that the present soloists, orchestra and conductor. As noted above, I enjoyed Lieuwen’s take on minimalism, it is characteristically a perfect balance between the ‘traditional’ elements beloved by the composers of the genre, but infused with a good dose of neo-classicism.