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S & H Concert Review

Handel, Lieberson, other composers: Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Christopher Gould, Wigmore Hall, December 6th 2002. (ME)


‘Angels…..’ said Lorraine Hunt Lieberson introducing her third encore, and the rest was lost in a buzz of delighted exclamations: rightly so, for ‘Angels, ever bright and fair’ from ‘Theodora’ is the kind of repertoire in which this wonderful mezzo-soprano has few equals, and her singing of it was as beautifully phrased, as movingly expressed and as technically fluent as I have ever heard. I was hoping for ‘As with rosy steps the morn’ after that, but instead she opted to show her versatility with Telson’s ‘I am calling you.’ That we had to be content with only a little Handel, was the only real disappointment of this recital, however, since her opening arias, from ‘Ariodante’ and ‘Rinaldo,’ offered singing of rare distinction.

‘Scherza infida’ is one of the greatest of all Handel’s dramatic recitative / arias: first performed by the soprano castrato Carestini, it provides a range of challenges for any singer, especially at the beginning of a recital, but it is part of Ms Hunt Lieberson’s style to be able to immerse herself totally in a role almost from the moment she steps onto the platform. She conveyed every detail of the dejected hero’s sorrow at the supposed betrayal of his beloved, sometimes readily sacrificing absolute beauty of tone in order to make a dramatic point, but always producing the most tender, evocative, vividly characterized singing you could possibly hope to hear. This melancholy, elaborate aria, with its dissonant suspensions echoing the hero’s forlorn sentiments found its perfect interpreter in this singer, and it was received in a rapt, absorbed silence.

It took Christopher Gould a little time to get into his stride in terms of being an equal partner for her, but by the time ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ began he seemed to have settled down and accompanied this heartbreaking aria with playing of the proper dignity and nobility. Gould is very young to be at this level, but his elevation will not have come as a surprise to anyone who heard him accompanying one of the finalists in last year’s Wigmore Hall Song Competition, and his playing from this point on was highly sympathetic without being servile. This aria was perfection: deeply moving in expression - so much so that there were people openly weeping all around me – as well as tenderly sensitive to language, Hunt Lieberson’s singing reminded me very much of that of Kathleen Ferrier, not so much in the colour of the voice, which is quite different, but in the moving quality of her intonation. When she produced that final pianissimo at ‘per pietà’ with the voice fading away to a shiveringly exquisite thread, you could almost hear the appreciative silence in the hall.

The group of French songs which made up the rest of the first half of the programme was not quite at the same level, but then it is difficult to imagine how any singing could be. Debussy’s ‘Beau soir’ gave Gould the chance to reveal his elegant, languid playing but Hunt Lieberson’s diction was rather hazy here: however, it was a different story in Chausson’s ‘Le colibri’ where she really seemed to be savouring the words, and both singer and pianist achieved the perfect diminuendo at ‘Du premier baiser qu l’a parfumée.’

The second half began with a highly charged, warmly dramatic performance of Turina’s ‘Farruca,’ where the verbal language is almost that of the kind of poem favoured by Schumann but the musical expression is vibrantly coloured, and Hunt Lieberson gave it a performance worthy of the singer to whom it was dedicated, Conchita Supervia. The evening’s major work was the five ‘Rilke Songs,’ written for the singer by her husband Peter Lieberson and premiered in 2001. Rilke’s poetry is obviously very dear to the composer, and he really does know how to write for the voice, but these settings are, for me, compromised by the weakness of the poems, although I know that this view is not shared by everyone, and some people are quite relaxed about such lines as ‘...until her womb can feel the polyphonic / light of the sonorous heavens pouring down.’

That being said, Lieberson sets these vague effusions as though they are by Goethe, revealing a genuine feeling for the shaping of a musical line so that it lies gracefully for the voice, and in ‘O ihr Zärtlichen’ setting words like ‘Seligen’ and phrases such as ‘Aber die Lufte…aber die Räume’ so skilfully that it is no effort to imagine the bleak spaces and the encircling air. ‘Wolle die Wandlung’ has a very challenging piano part which Gould negotiated with panache, and the final ‘Stiller Freund’ gave further evidence of the composer’s deep love for these poems and the singer’s ability to present them with a passion and beauty of tone merited by the music, if not the word., with the final ‘Ich bin’ closing the group with ringing, fervent commitment.

A naturally enthusiastic audience brought them back for four encores, beginning with an exciting ‘Erlkönig’ in which Gould thundered out those gruesome octaves as though possessed and Hunt Lieberson characterized every individual part with real drama, especially in the malevolent spirit’s ‘so brauch ich Gewalt.’ Both the Telson piece and Copland’s ‘Pastorale’ were given beautiful performances, the flowing legato line of the voice in the latter echoed by the gently rippling piano, but it was ‘Angels, ever bright and fair’ which almost eclipsed everything else, with singing of a purity, expressiveness and emotional force that can be equalled by very few other singers of our, or indeed in my opinion, any other time.


Melanie Eskenazi


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