Lorraine Hunt Lieberson
* Mahler: 5 Rueckert-Lieder
* Handel: Arias from Ariodante and Theodora
- 5 Rilke Songs (excerpts)
- "Triraksha's aria" from Ashoka's Dream
* Trad.: Deep River
* Brahms: Unbewegte laue Luft
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo), Roger Vignoles (piano).
Recorded Live at Wigmore Hall, London, 30 November 1998.
Wigmore Hall WHLive0013 Total time: 59:22
Summary for the Busy Executive: Just about perfect.
In this recital recorded live by BBC 3, the late mezzo Lorraine Hunt
Lieberson lets you know why so many listeners miss her.
I would have loved to have actually attended one of her performances.
I count among the treasures of my concert-going life a couple of recitals
by Janet Baker. Lieberson operates at the same level, although her
voice, fine as it is, hasn't the spooky beauty of Baker's. Nevertheless,
her musical intelligence and her ability to communicate equals her
predecessor's. I got hooked on Lieberson when I heard her Bach with
Craig Smith and the forces of Boston's Emmanuel Church (available on
Nonesuch 79692). Smith and his band of heroes (full complement of singers
and instrumentalists) do a Bach cantata every week as part of the service.
This I have seen live, twice, and I still have trouble believing it --
not that a bunch of professionals couldn't bull their way through a Bach
cantata after a week's rehearsal, but that it should be some of the best
Bach singing and playing I've ever heard in my life. You don't even
have to buy a ticket. Before she went on to a stellar career, Lieberson
sang with those guys regularly. I'm sure she was a great musician before,
but -- let's face it -- Bach sharpens you.
Elgar used to plead for "singers with brains." A mere voice for him
didn't cut it. He preferred a musical intelligence that got behind the
notes to the emotional message. Lieberson, amazingly, started out as a
professional, working, freelance violist. When her instrument got stolen,
she turned to singing professionally. My own theory about her musicianship
has to do with her experience as a chamber player. She seems preternaturally
alert to her accompaniment, and she reacts to it, giving the listener
the impression that the music has just been thought up, like jazz. When
you have that and a singer with a technique so magnificent that she not
only can do anything, she can think of great things to do that would
have escaped all but a rare few, you've got Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.
The program opens with the Rueckert songs of Mahler. Again, Lieberson
competes with Baker, accompanied by Barbirolli, yet (currently available
on EMI 66996). The latter stands among the finest Mahler performances
ever, both for the singer and the accompaniment. It's too much to expect
pianist Roger Vignoles to perfectly mimic the Mahler orchestra, but he
certainly creates a terrific metaphor for it. His control over the
dynamics of imitative voices is superb. Lieberson glows -- rapturous
in "Liebst du um Schoenheit," warm and lovely in "Blicke mir nicht in
die Lieder," soaring from deep funk to high ecstasy in "Um Mitternacht."
Furthermore, it's not a cookie-cutter account. Cliches of song
interpretation -- the plummy scoop and swoop, the sudden pianissimo --
she has banished. You know she's thought hard about these poems. She
presents you again and again with surprising details within a musical
line so flexible, you feel as if you make simultaneous discoveries with
her as she sings.
The Handel recalls Hunt's stage success in both Ariodante and Theodora.
It's difficult to get to the dramatic truth of Baroque opera and oratorio
-- so remote from our concepts of realism -- but within those conventions,
Handel counts as one of the great dramatists. In the Ariodante excerpt,
he sets a frazzled, psychologically confused state, more complex than
the usual abandoned lover. In the Theodora aria, he portrays great faith
and inner strength. The Theodora text is a bit of pious claptrap, taken
by itself, but Lieberson turns the aria into a triumph. By the way, she
has recorded the complete operas: Ariodante with Nicholas McGegan on
Harmonia Mundi 907146, Theodora with William Christie on Kultur Video
DVD 2099, a Glyndebourne production directed by Peter Sellars.
Lorraine Hunt met composer Peter Lieberson during the production of the
premiere of Lieberson's opera Ashoka's Dream. Shortly thereafter, she
became Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Peter Lieberson, in contrast to most
composers influenced by dodecaphony, knew how to write for the voice,
and married to such a spectacular singer, became even melodious.
"Triraksha's Aria," from Ashoka's Dream, suffers a bit, divorced from
its context in the complete work. It doesn't work as an aria on its
own, underscored by the fact that the mezzo delivers a brief plot summary
to the audience before she sings. The Rilke songs come off far better.
Although certainly contemporary in idiom, they have the sound of classic
German Lied. In their close following of textual rhythm and meaning,
they remind me of Strauss and Wolf. Momentary consonances take on the
burdens of epiphany at corresponding moments in the poems themselves.
Rilke has always been one of my favorite poets, and Peter Lieberson joins
those few composers who, like Hindemith, have set him with real
understanding. His wife sings with so much heart and with such beauty,
I, like Linda Richman, got farklemt.
The recital closes with two encores: Harry T. Burleigh's classic
arrangement of "Deep River" and Brahms's "Unbewegte laue Luft." Lieberson
loved the spiritual and worked it into many of her appearances (including,
memorably, a gala performance of Fledermaus). It almost became a
manifesto: what an American singer could sing without self-consciousness
or affectation. Her ability to sing in English -- a rare asset even in
native-born classical singers -- without resorting to operatic orotundity
or to a grotesque, unintentional parody of pop makes the performance.
As in Mozart, considerable art from both the singer and the arranger has
gone into producing an effect of pure simplicity.
For some reason, compared to Schubert and Mahler, Brahms's songs --
excepting the four serious ones -- aren't much done. A shame, really.
Many treasures await the adventurous singer. Lieberson chooses not the
relatively popular "Von waldbekraenzter Hoehe," from the same set, but
the quite-rare "Unbewegte laue Luft" ("motionless, mild air"). The poem
begins as a picture of nocturnal stillness, then moves to a het-up ending,
as the speaker anticipates a tryst with the beloved. It takes something
to get from one mood to the other with conviction, but Lieberson and
Vignoles pull it off. From an atmosphere where the slightest movement
makes a huge impact, we wind up in a glorious paean to Romantic love
(sex, actually, but never mind that now), and Lieberson sounds both alert
in the nocturne and ready to burst from anticipation at the end.
Again, I should mention Vignoles. He has often partnered with singers
I didn't care for but has always made them better than they really
were. Like the legendary Gerald Moore, he doesn't fall into a generic
accompaniment. His lines bristle with detail, based on the meaning of
the texts. With a musician of Lieberson's caliber, he blossoms, playing
at a whole 'nother, higher level. An outstanding feature of this recital
is the way Lieberson and Vignoles listen to each other, so that, despite
whatever pre-planning went into their preparation, they remain alive to
the surprise of performance. An outstanding disc.
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