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Piano Variations (1995)
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Piano Variations (1995)
were commissioned by the Great Performers Series of Lincoln Center for Emanuel Ax. I composed my variations quickly, but only after a long period of reflection and waiting. The material for the variations consists of three phrases, each of which have distinctive elements. First there is a stentorian phrase, a single, forceful line with a characteristic intervallic sound (fifths, minor second, minor third, and augmented fourth.) The second phrase is a continuation of the first and is recognizable by its tremolos and trills. The third phrase is quirky and abrupt, light in feeling, harmonically indefinite. These three phrases are the basic ground out of which the variations arise.
The variations are grouped into four sections (each with two variations) and a coda. Each section in turn is based on the four elements, water, earth, fire, and air, in that order. The three phrases retain their character throughout the piece but are subject to different interpretations based on the feeling of the element involved. Hence there are watery variations, earthy variations, and so on. I did not interpret the elements too literally, but rather with a deeper, perhaps personal, sense of the element: water has clarity and obscurity; earth has heaviness and humor; fire has warmth and seductiveness; wind has turbulence and speed. The coda is based on a fifth element: the space that accommodates all the other elements.
While I do treat the materials classically in the sense that I want the listener to be able to hear what I am varying, each variation of the three basic phrases have different emphases, and some variations are based solely on one of the phrases. Furthermore, the two variations in each group of variations are extended, and last much longer, than the actual phrases themselves. Nonetheless, there are always moments where I locate where we are in the journey, so to speak, and each group of variations is clearly demarcated from the others.
I think that the element of dance pervades all the variations. Indeed, I could call these variations Elemental Dances.
The really newsworthy item was the New York premiere of Peter Lieberson's Piano Variations. The eight variations fall into sections marked "Water," "Earth," "Fire" and "Wind." Motifs are built out of a set of four notes, technically 12-tone in construction. But the sets approximate familiar triads or diminished chords, so the harmony also has strong tonal pull. Richly augmented chord sequences bore traces of Liszt, Berg and Messiaen; arabesques, trills and tremolos painted impressionistic tone pictures of the elements [giving] a lyrical sense to a complex, ever-shifting texture. Mr. Lieberson has created a powerful, kinetic, luminous piece that deserves to enter the permanent repertory.
Alex Ross , The New York Times,1/1/0001
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