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Johannes BRAHMS (1833–1897)
Eight Songs, Op 57 [21:32]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810–1856)
Four Lieder from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, Op 89a [14:19]
Frauenliebe und –leben, Op. 42 [27:33]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862–1918)
Fantoches (from Fêtes galantes) [1:26]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685– 1759)
Angels, ever bright and fair
(from Theodora) [4:17]
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo)
Julius Drake (piano)
rec. live, Wigmore Hall, London, 4 October 1999
Original language texts and English translations included
Experience Classicsonline

Those responsible for choosing the recordings to issue on the Wigmore Hall Live label have already established a reputation for consistent discernment. This latest release, featuring the late-lamented Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, is a further example of this excellent taste. To the best of my knowledge Miss Hunt Lieberson is, to date, the only soloist to whom more than one release has been devoted in this series. A marvellous 1998 recital was issued on CD a couple of years ago and was very rightly lauded by Patrick Waller in his Reviewer’s Log at that time.
The present recital very logically brings together lieder by Brahms and Schumann. In his excellent booklet note, Richard Stokes describes the Op. 57 songs as “undeniably the most overtly sensual of [Brahms’s] output”. It seems to me that Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s voice is ideally suited to them. Her singing of the first song, ‘Von waldbekränzter Höhe’ is full of longing. Even better is the third song, ‘Es träumte mir’, a beautiful setting in which she conveys the vulnerability and regret of the poem in a very moving piece of singing.
The poems were written by a man, Georg Friedrich Daumer (1800-1875), and several of the texts are clearly addressed by a man to a woman. One such is ‘In meiner Nächte Sehnen’ but, issues of gender notwithstanding, Miss Hunt Lieberson’s performance is wholly convincing. The seventh song, ‘Die Schnur, die Perl’ an Perle’ is also a man’s text, but this particular woman sings it superbly; listen in particular to the way she delivers the very last cadence, so delicate and longing. The most erotic and the longest song is the last one, ‘Unbewegte, laue Luft’. This is almost Straussian at the start and the stillness of the marvellously sustained first four lines is beautifully realised by both performers. Thereafter the tone becomes more passionate until there’s a palpable sense of release just before the tranquil ending.
The quartet of Schumann songs is equally successful. Though marvellously expressive, Miss Hunt Lieberson doesn’t neglect attention to detail in her interpretation. Thus, in the first song, ‘Kennst du das Land?’ she’s audibly alive to Schumann’s instruction in the second and third stanzas, to sing “with mounting expression”. In the following song the sorrow of the abducted Mignon is achingly conveyed while ‘Heiss mich nicht reden’ receives an intense, vivid performance.
As I hope I’ve conveyed, each of the first two groups in this recital is excellent. However with Frauenliebe und –leben we come to a performance that is more than touched by greatness. I love the simple, inward delivery of ‘Seit ich ihn gesehen’. Just as winning is the bright-eyed eagerness with which she invests ‘Er, der Herrlichste von allen’.
‘Du Ring an meinem Finger’ begins with moving simplicity. However, after the quietly intense delivery of the first three stanzas, the fourth stanza, which begins with the words “Ich will ihm dienen, ihm leben, ihm angehören ganz” (“I shall serve him, live for him, belong to him wholly”), offers a wonderful demonstration of the commitment and generosity of Miss Hunt Lieberson’s singing.
I could comment, with equal enthusiasm, on each song but I’ll content myself just with a mention of the last one. ‘Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan’’ is intensely moving as this singer conveys the pain of irrevocable separation. The singing is searing in its intensity yet exquisitely controlled and the last verse is amazingly withdrawn. In a performance such as this Schumann’s master-stroke of reprising the music of the very first song in the piano postlude comes across with additional poignancy – and especially so when rendered with the sort of sensitivity shown by the admirable Julius Drake. After hearing her spellbinding rendition of this song I wondered, not for the first time, if there is an off-air recording somewhere of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in Das Lied von der Erde. That could be a devastating experience.
This is, quite simply, one of the finest, most eloquent accounts of  Frauenliebe und –leben that I have ever heard or expect to hear. As a musical and emotional experience it’s fit to be bracketed with readings such as those by Brigitte Fassbaender and Dame Janet Baker. In some ways I’d esteem it more highly; partly because it’s a live interpretation caught on the wing and partly because Miss Hunt Lieberson, while matching, though not mimicking, the insights of those great artists possesses a sensuality in her voice that they can’t quite emulate.
There are two encores. The Debussy piece brings a welcome injection of gaiety. And then comes the Handel. At this point I will cease commentary and merely say, hear this for yourself – but don’t be surprised if your eyes are moist at the end!
I feel guilty that I’ve only mentioned the playing of Julius Drake fleetingly. Even in the presence of such a magnificent soloists that’s grossly unfair for his playing throughout the recital is subtle, alive and full of nuance. This recital is a true partnership and he contributes massively to its artistic success. The recording, which originates from the BBC, is excellent and the documentation is first class.
The more I hear of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson the more convinced I become that her untimely death was as grievous a loss to music as those of artists such as Dennis Brain, Ginette Neveu and Guido Cantelli. This superlative recital disc demands to be heard by all who prize great singing. Many fine discs come one’s way as a reviewer but just occasionally one comes along that it is a privilege to review. This is one such.
John Quinn


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