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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]

Only last year I encountered Lorraine Hunt Liebersonís wondrously expressive recordings of two cantatas by Bach. It was only the fact that this was not a brand new recording Ė though it was new to me Ė that, eventually, decided me against nominating it as one of my Recordings of the Year.

Now along comes another extraordinary recording, which has similarly bowled me over. This time itís of contemporary music, a set of five songs composed for her by her husband, Peter Lieberson. The texts are love poems by the Chilean composer Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) and they come from his collection, Cien Sonetos de Amor. These, I believe, were addressed by Neruda to his own beloved, Matilde Urruitia. Lieberson sets them in the original Spanish.

The songs were jointly commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with whom Miss Hunt Lieberson gave the première, and the Boston Symphony. The present recording derives from public performances given with the latter orchestra only a matter of months before the singerís death in July 2006.

Inevitably, thereís a great deal of emotion associated both with the songs themselves and with the performance. Lieberson wrote them for his wife to celebrate their relationship and in the full knowledge of her mortality. In reviewing this disc Iíve tried to listen as objectively as possible and I believe that what we have here is a collection of great songs.

Lieberson has scored them with great subtlety and resourcefulness. The orchestration is fairly light. The orchestra consists of two flutes (one doubling piccolo), oboe, two clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons, a pair each of horns and trumpets, harp, piano, some percussion, which is sparingly deployed, and strings. The scoring is generally translucent and often quite restrained. The vocal line, by contrast, is simply glorious. Consistently itís full of melodic interest and the way in which the composer responds to the often-arresting imagery of the poems is quite astonishing.

My colleague, Patrick Waller, has pointed out to me that the very opening of the first song carries harmonic echoes of the Berg Violin Concerto. Indeed, it seems to me that Berg casts a beneficent shadow over the whole song. Liebersonís music is ardent, even when, superficially, it appears to relax. Thereís a sultry languor to the writing Ė in fact, thatís a feature of all the songs Ė and Hunt Lieberson invests the music with great emotion, especially by savouring and using such words as "fragrante" and "bienamada"; though sung here by a woman the original poems were, of course, addressed by a man to a woman.

The second song is rather more lively and dramatic in tone yet even here there are still long, voluptuous vocal lines to savour. The orchestration, though light, is vivid and suggestive. In the third song we confront, in the composerís words, "the fear and pain of separation". The music is heavy with apprehension at the consequences of parting, as is the original poem. The richly expressive vocal line is sparingly but tellingly supported by the orchestra. The very end of the song is especially moving. Here the singer softly repeats several times the single word, "muriendo" ("dying"), accompanied, eventually, by a desolate little oboe counter-melody.

The fourth song is the longest and it opens with exultant cries of "Ya eres mia" ("And now youíre mine."). Soon a slow bossa-nova rhythm is established, enhanced by gentle maracas. This is the most overtly passionate of all the songs and a few heady orchestral outpourings - for example between 3:25 and 4:05 - illustrate vividly the poetís sense of exultation at possessing his beloved. However, the setting of the last pair of lines, beginning at 5:36, is delicate and dreamlike. Musically and emotionally these bars prepare us for the final song.

This last song is where the whole work has been leading. Itís a profound utterance, a song of aching sadness. Quite simply, itís one of the most moving pieces of music Iíve heard in a long time and when I played the CD through for the first time I played this last song three times consecutively, so great an impression did it make. Neruda conjures up moving images of infinity and wide-open spaces to suggest the vast vistas of love. Above all, Iím captivated by his image of love as "como un largo rio" ("like a long river") and by how Miss Hunt Lieberson inflects those words each time they appear! Particularly striking is the passionate outburst at "oh perqueño infinito! devolvemos". ("O little infinity! we give it back."), followed immediately by the consolatory tone of Liebersonís music for the next line: "Pero este amor, amor, no ha terminado." (But Love, this love has not ended.").

The setting of the last four lines (from 4:56) is as ineffably moving as are Nerudaís words and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson pours out her very self into their delivery. At the end, thank goodness, there is silence: applause would have been a grotesque intrusion.

Itís very difficult to judge these songs outwith the context in which they were conceived. I hope that other singers will not fear to take them into their repertoire; perhaps Joyce DiDonato or Susan Graham? Their onlie begetter has given them an unforgettable performance but they must have a wider circulation Ė and soon. As it is, Iím convinced that Peter Lieberson has created a masterpiece. Patrick Waller has listened to them followed by the Berg concerto to which I referred earlier and he tells me that the two pieces make for a most satisfying recorded concert. Might I suggest that an equally apposite pairing might be Mahlerís Ninth Symphony?

Though Iím impatient to hear these songs performed by other singers this present performance is unlikely ever to be surpassed. For me it represents the apogee of Lorraine Hunt Liebersonís uniquely intense and communicative artistry. She is superbly, sensitively supported by James Levine and the Boston Symphony in what is surely a landmark recording.

It has been a deeply moving and satisfying experience for me to become acquainted with these wonderful, luminous songs on this outstanding disc.

John Quinn

See also review by Anne Ozorio February Recording of the Month


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