Lorraine Hunt Lieberson: Beloved Mezzo Lives on CDs



Lorraine Hunt Lieberson/Roger Vignoles Wigmore Hall Live (BBC)

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson/Boston Symphony Orchestra/James Levine Peter Lieberson: Neruda Songs (Nonesuch)

American mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died at age 52 last year after a long battle with cancer, is remembered on two new releases of concert recordings commemorating her artistry. Lorraine Hunt, who married composer Peter Lieberson in 1999, was unusual even by the standards of the classical music world. Though both her parents were singers, she first made her living as a violist, and didn't become a professional singer until she was 29 years old, a late start (she had sung in her student days, then dropped it). She never had a press agent. She never had a long-term deal with a record label. When she decided to study singing, she failed her audition for Juilliard. Her chosen operatic roles mostly fall outside what's considered standard repertoire, with an emphasis on Baroque (notably Handel) and contemporary composers (not least her husband, who wrote some beautiful song cycles for her). Perhaps most unusual, she seemingly exuded no egotism. It's not surprising when one learns that aspects of her life could be comfortably categorized as "California hippy." But she had pretty much the perfect mezzo voice (one imagines that had she auditioned as a mezzo for Juilliard, instead of as a lyric soprano, she would have passed easily), rich and smoky in her low range with burnished clarity higher up. And when she sang, there was a burning intensity to her performances. That's not to imply any histrionics or hysteria -- far from it. Her intensity was, to switch metaphors, tightly coiled, nowhere moreso than in her song recitals, as these releases show.

The Wigmore recital dates from November 30, 1998. A moment of personal interjection: midway through the first encore, H.T. Burleigh's familiar arrangement of the spiritual "Deep River," I couldn't help crying. This might have happened even if the singer were still alive, since her quiet expressiveness in this simple song is so powerful. In the context of listening to this and the other songs of love and death in this program after her passing, the effect was almost unbearable as my sense of the loss of her talents, and her husband’s loss of her love, washed over me. This is not a disc to be played lightly. The restraint of Hunt Lieberson's Mahler singing is especially striking. She does the complete Rückert Lieder, all five receiving ravishingly beautiful readings, with the haunted "Um Mitternacht" (At Midnight) soul-shaking and "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" (I am lost to the world) -- a tribute to involvement in love and music -- absolutely transcendent. Next come some Handel arias, where she can unleash the full power of her voice, restraint be damned, though still with a sense of proportion, and drama rather than melodrama. Then she leaps several centuries forward, to music written for her by Peter Lieberson, two of his Five Rilke Songs (the complete set can be heard, with Hunt Lieberson accompanied by Peter Serkin, on an all-Lieberson program issued by Bridge; it received the 2007 Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Performance). This music is more consonant than Lieberson's earlier work, still slightly unsettling but also quite beautiful and moving. After that comes a sample of the role that led to the meeting of composer and singer, "Triraksha's Aria" from the opera Ashoka's Dream. It's got emotional complexity, expressed gracefully, and features not only a dramatic peak but also a breathtaking pianissimo conclusion. Finally, the encores: the aforementioned spiritual, and Brahms's "Unbewegte laue Luft" (Motionless Mild Air), its opening so contemplative that the effect is nearly Impressionistic before blooming into full-blooded, unashamed Romanticism. It crowns an hour-long program that all serious vocal fans need to hear.

The final collaboration between the couple is Neruda Songs. The texts are from Neruda's 100 Love Sonnets, a book purchased by the couple in the second month of their relationship (1997). Lieberson picked the particular poems, and set them (in their original Spanish) in 2005. This disc's performance was recorded "live" that November. Even thinking about the context of this music could break your heart. Nor did Lieberson shy away from dealing with that -- consider the final song's text (translation by Stephen Tapscott): "My love, if I die and you don't. My love, if you die and I don't, let's not give grief an even greater field. No expanse is greater than where we live. Dust in the wheat, sand in the deserts, time, wandering water, the vague wind swept us on like sailing seeds We might not have found one another in time. This meadow where we find ourselves, O little infinity! We give it back. But Love, this love has not ended: just as it never had a birth, it has no death: it is like a long river, only changing lands, and changing lips."

Lieberson was a serialist composer earlier in his career; his music here is harmonically related to that of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern before they became serialists, post-Romantic in its nearly overpowering richness (Chausson, Canteloube, Mahler, and Richard Strauss also come to mind at times). The way one instrument (or section) after another will flit across the foreground is somewhat Webernesque, though that's just one of many techniques in Lieberson's arsenal. He allies this with larger intervallic leaps and greater dissonance to produce a certain restlessness or unease in the first three songs, then emphasizes longer lines, sweeter harmonies, more stepwise motion, and a predominance of strings in the last two poems to reflect their more settled emotions. The vocal lines similarly progress to greater voluptuousness and rhapsodic expression. The overall structure of the cycle thus seems to blossom into a profound mix of serene happiness and acceptance, a sort of calm ecstasy that reaches its peak accompanying the quoted lyrics above. Perhaps Nonesuch issued this cycle alone, despite totaling merely 32 minutes, only because it had nothing else to put on the disc. But the effect is to demonstrate that the work can stand on its own, in fact deserves to given its context. It now takes its place with the great Romantic orchestral song cycles.