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Peter LIEBERSON (b. 1946)
Neruda Songs (2005) [31:11]
Si no fuera porque tus ojos tienen color de luna [5:04]; Amor, amor, las nubes a la torre del cielo [5:48]; No estés lejos de mi un solo día, porque cómo [6:23]; Ya eres mía. Reposa con tu sueño en mi sueño [7:26]; Amor mío, si muero y tú no mueres [7:10]
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/James Levine
rec. 25-26 November 2005, Boston Symphony Hall
NONESUCH 79954-2 [31:11]


There is no way this recording will ever be redundant, because it’s "more" than just a recording. It is a talisman, for it’s a testament to the love between Peter and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.. As everyone will know by now, Lorraine Lieberson passed away in July 2006, and Peter Lieberson is presently in hospital in Houston. There is just no getting round the fact that these songs cannot be heard without being aware of the context. In any case it would be churlish to dismiss the fact that our response is coloured by this knowledge, because that knowledge pervades the composition and the performance. The Liebersons knew it’s all about imminent death, as does nearly everyone involved. Death is something we’ll all face one day, so it’s a good thing that this performance makes us face up to that reality and learn from them how they dealt with it.

Some years ago Hunt Lieberson sang a shocking re-interpretation of Bach’s Ich habe genug. This was shortly after the deaths of her mother and sister from cancer, and was intended as to raise awareness about the illness. More importantly, from an artistic point of view, it was a radical new approach to the spirit of the Bach cantata, re-affirming its spiritual message about renewal through faith. There is also no need for anything else to be on this recording. These new songs, to texts by Pablo Neruda, connect in their own way to that fascinating, but controversial interpretation, which some consider one of the singer’s finest achievements.

Short this recording may be, but so is life. Anyone who feels short changed because they don’t get 80 minutes for the price of the disc needs a soul transplant. This is much more than a performance, it’s a human document. It is completely unique. Of course, it’s a memorial to a remarkable personality and singer, but it "gives" something of value to the listener because it’s so intensely personal and courageous. The booklet is stark and unadorned by anything but essentials. On the front is a photograph of Lorraine beaming defiantly. Inside, there’s another of her moments later, still smiling, but her eyes closed. And then, on the back cover, only black.

As Alex Ross says in his notes, this is "music of uncommon refinement, from which everything extraneous has been taken away". The voice jumps straight in with a unsentimental, matter-of-fact directness. These songs celebrate life, not death, and the power of love to overcome all obstacles. "Everything is alive so that I can be alive, ….. in your life I see everything that lives". She sings that last phrase with delicious fire. The accompaniment is spare, but sensual. High strings are balanced by the deeper notes of a harp. In the second song, the mood is of spaciousness, the strings shimmering as if to capture the stars and open air in the poem. "There’s nothing here but light, quantities, clusters, space opened by the graces of the wind". The voice part isn’t adorned, but floats above the accompaniment. In contrast, the third song confronts fear and loss. It’s eerily quiet, anxiety rising despite the poet’s attempt to suppress it. The last word, "moriendo" (dying) is repeated several times over as if the singer is contemplating what will happen. Yet, again, it’s more dignified and firm than sentimental. The imagery in the fourth song is restful and almost dreamlike, the words "Amor!" repeated lovingly. Yet the strings tell a different story: they are starker, entering with greater force, though a simple little figure pushes the movement ahead. It ends abruptly. Then, comes the magnificent final song, where the poet confronts death and separation. Chill strings shimmer, like the "vague wind swept on us, like sailing seeds". But it’s the final strophe that’s most moving. "Love doesn’t end, goes the poem, because it has no birth, it has no death. … It is like a long river, only changing hands, and changing lips". As if the composer cannot bear to end the song, he repeats the verse again, and then the last line, and then, simply "Amor … amor …. amor".

These songs are surprisingly performable, so no doubt one day, there will be other performances, and people will squabble over the "best" version, as quite likely this recording will be surpassed. But frankly, that’s irrelevant. What makes this recording special is that it is an artistic testament by two brave human beings confronting imminent separation and turning their anxieties into something which can, perhaps, help others when they, too, face such situations.

Anne Ozorio



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