This entry in Deutsche Grammophon's "20/21" line of contemporary music recordings collects eight pieces by Peter Lieberson, with Oliver Knussen leading three ensembles. Lieberson is a a relatively often performed but rarely recorded composer, and his two biggest inspirations seem to be Stravinsky, who knew his family when Lieberson was a youth, and Tibetan Buddhism. Perhaps due to the older Stravinsky, his music embraces modern concepts like a vague atonalism while at the same time having a smoothness that makes them very accessible.
The disc opens with a really invigorating miniature symphony, "Drala" (1986), in four movements. I lack the formal training in music theory to explain this piece adequately. However, its structure is quite easy to grasp, with an opening "Invocation" that displays timbre and melody, an uproarious "Gathering" concerned with rhythm, a slow and elegiac "Offerings and Praises", and a final "Raising Windhorse". I especially admire how throughout Lieberson expertly employs all forces of the orchestra without making any seem unnecessary. The use of percussion in the second and fourth movements has a powerful and aggressive edge one rarely hears in contemporary music (though Messiaen and Lutoslawski's first symphony comes to mind). My only complaint about the piece is that much of the third movement doesn't really mesh at all with the other movements, occasionally seeming an abberation.
It's a pity that the rest of the material on the disc doesn't quite compare with the first work. The "Three Songs" for soprano and ensemble, sung here by Rosemary Hardy, are frankly mediocre. The serial work "Ziji" for clarinet, horn and piano quartet typifies the dullest product of such a style, and Lieberson doesn't succeed in turing the technique to anything elegant as does Boulez. Similarly "Accordance" seems pointless note-spinning. "Fire" (1995), the first of a projected series called "The Five Great Elements", is one of the most derivative pieces I've ever heard. Still, the six-minute "Raising The Gaze" is charming enough, with shimmering percussion and playful hints at birdsong. I similarly enjoyed the closing "Free And Easy Wanderer", with its virtuoso demands on a sinfonietta and individual coverage of each player over its six-minute span.
There are many bits here of exciting music, but my overall impression with the disc is that it's somehow vacuous. It's often technically perfect, but lacks any distinctive personality or real inventiveness. In fact, Lieberson is the only composer that makes me feel as uneasy as does Thomas Ades. Maybe others, especially neophytes to contemporary repertoire, will enjoy RAISING THE GAZE, but I'd recommend sampling the material before committing to buying the disc.