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CLASSICAL  January 2010

CLASSICAL January 2010

Subject:

Lieberson in Song

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sat, 23 Jan 2010 20:32:53 -0800

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text/plain

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Lorraine Hunt Lieberson
Recital, Ravinia, 2004

*  Brahms:
         - Unbewegte laue Luft
         - Ruhe, Suessliebchen, im Schatten
         - Von ewiger Liebe
*  Handel:
         - La Lucrezia - Arias
         - Giulio Cesare -- Son nata a lagrimar*
*  Debussy: Trois chansons de Bilitis
*  Mozart:
         - Dans au bois solitaire
         - Als Luise die Briefe ihres ungetreuen Liebhabers verbrannte
         - Abendempfindung an Laura
         - Eine kleine deutsche Kantate (excerpt)
*  Burleigh: Deep River
*  Telson: Calling You

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo)
Drew Minter (countertenor)
Peter Serkin (piano)
Harmonia Mundi HMU907500  Total time: 76:39

Summary for the Busy Executive: Sweet Lorraine.

Another recording, released after her death, of concert recitals from
the late and mourned Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.  The mezzo gave this recital
at the 2004 Ravinia Festival.  The program presents, I think, a fair
portrait of her range.

Like most great singers -- Ferrier, Baker, and Sinatra among them --
you can pick out Lieberson's voice within a couple of measures.  She
sounds clearer and lighter than most mezzos, likely because she began
singing as a soprano.  However, she does lack a certain richness, as
well as the often-attendant and annoying ubertremolo of the usual mezzo.
She also sang with a great musical intelligence and psychological acuity
that more than compensated.  A sense of what the French call mesure clung
to her.  She avoided going over the top as well as short-changing the
intensity of the music.  I found her at her best in Romantic Lieder,
French chanson (where apparently only the smartest singers need apply),
and the Baroque, especially Handel and Bach.  Fortunately, we have all
of that here.

The only thing I don't like about Lieberson's career was her concentration
on the Baroque and the Classical.  It took time away from her Lieder and
chansons, my absolute favorite part of her repertoire.  I'm convinced
that if she had focused on those, we would consider her in the same
breath as Lehmann, Panzera, and Fischer-Dieskau.  In "Unbewegte laue
Luft" ("motionless, warm air"), she and her accompanist, Peter Serkin,
arrest you immediately in a picture of perfect stillness.  The transition
from this to the poet's "hotter desires" coursing through his blood is
superbly judged.  Singer and pianist play with one mind.  "Von ewiger
Liebe" ("of eternal love"), one of those faux folk songs Brahms apparently
could shake from his sleeves, has both the folk song's clarity of phrase
and a harmony so sophisticated that can quickly cover great musical
distances without calling attention to itself as such.  The piece presents
a dialogue between a boy and a girl.  The boy warns the girl that if she
listens to and believes the gossip about him, their love will disappear
faster than the wind and the rain.  The girl passionately assures him
that her love is mightier than iron and steel, since they can melt and
change.  Lieberson manages the characterization of both speakers (by the
way, the boy seems a bit of a louse) and portrays the true heart of the
girl without ever going over the top.  A propos of nothing, why don't I
hear more Brahms songs (other than the "four serious" ones) in live
recital?  Schubert, Schumann, and Wolf seem the hot tickets these days
-- not that I judge them unworthy, but I would like a little more variety:
Mozart, Brahms, Grieg, Mahler, Strauss, for example.

Lieberson's subtlety as a Lieder singer makes her doubly excellent in
chansons, especially Debussy, master of the fleeting and the fragile,
in his depiction of psychological states in particular.  The Chansons
de Bilitis the composer chose, surely, partly for the "scandal" of the
sexual overtones of the text, but the songs transcend that reason and
endure as some of the composer's considerable best work, even when such
things have largely lost their power to shock (unless sex happens to
frighten you).  Lieberson is wonderful in all three songs but absolutely
knock-down smashing in the final "Le tombeau des naiades" ("the tomb of
the naiads").  It's another boy-girl dialogue, as the couple make their
way through the snow.  The girl follows tracks she believes belong to a
satyr.  The boy tells her that the satyrs and the nymphs died long ago
and that she follows the tracks of a stag.  We get both the hard cruelty
of the boy and the mourning of the girl for a lost world, all without
ever getting an explicit word.  It's all in the music.  With Debussy,
however, the singer isn't quite everything.  He demands equal imagination
from the pianist.  Serkin quite simply is the best I've heard in this
group.  He has mastered color.  I actually hear the flute as I've never
heard it before in the opening "La Flute de Pan" ("Pan's flute"), and
winter never seemed so bleak as Serkin gives it to us in "Le tombeau."

Lieberson's exploration of Handel and Mozart relates to her fondness
for less-worn paths.  I confess that her duet (Giulio Cesare's "Son nata
lagrimar") with counter-tenor Drew Minter -- the murdered Pompey's wife
and son say their final goodbyes -- leaves me with little more than cold
admiration, but that hinges more on the music itself than on their work.
To me, Handel is a great musical dramatist, and this number, beautiful
in itself, really retails the cliches of mourning rather than genuine
grief -- a rare misfire.  Handel returns to form and then some in the
arias from La Lucrezia, all depicting Lucretia's states of mind after
her rape by Tarquin: devastation, shame, calling down angry vengeance,
and a final curse, where she vows to ruin him from Hell, if she has to.
Heady stuff, yes, but Lieberson avoids the twin pitfalls of merely singing
notes and chewing the scenery.  Her readings seems -- oddly enough,
considering the conventionality of Baroque opera -- realistic.

If one could say that performers neglect any part of Mozart's catalogue,
I'd point to his songs, as opposed to his opera, concert, and sacred
arias.  I don't put most of his songs up there with Schubert and those
who followed, but Mozart's examples at their best are charming -- witty,
sometimes poignant, and much freer of classical convention than the
arias.  Characteristically, Lieberson included them, as well as part of
the little-known Eine kleine deutsche Kantate, which seems to me a Masonic
work, with its appeals to order, symmetry, religious tolerance, and
brotherhood.  Lieberson has chosen well.  "Dans un bois solitaire" ("in
a lonely wood"), despite a title which implies Romantic, Werther-like
suffering (you can imagine what Schubert would have done with it), is
actually a pert little cautionary tale about thinking of your old lovers
too much.  "Als Luise die Briefes ihres ungetreuen Liebhabers verbrannte"
("when Louisa burned the letters of her faithless lover") subtly caricatures
the betrayed operatic heroine -- grand gestures deliberately applied to
a small scale.  "Abendempfindung an Laura" ("evening feelings about
Laura"), the most remarkable of the set, begins with a night picture of
nature and shows that Schubert didn't invent this idiom.  Lieberson and
Serkin make a very strong case for Mozart as a Romantic pioneer.

The recital winds up with "Deep River," in a classic arrangement by H.T.
Burleigh, and "Calling You" by Bob Telson, from the movie Bagdad Cafe
(which some might know by the title Out of Rosenheim).  Knowing what I
now know (she sang this, fully aware she had inoperable cancer), I can't
hear Lieberson singing "Deep River," with its calls for a peaceful death,
without choking up a little.  Telson made a professional piece of work
of "Calling You," but it's easily the weakest thing on the program,
almost a cliche of the singer/songwriter (Dylan has at least this to
answer for).  Furthermore, neither Lieberson nor Serkin really have a
pop sensibility to carry it off.  They try to "raise and purify" the
thing into the realm of art song, which hardly ever works.  Still,
Lieberson manages to put it over and to make it better than it is.

A bunch of labels have issued these Lieberson live recitals.  This is
one of the better ones.  The singer is in top voice, and Serkin accompanies
-- or better, collaborates -- to the point where they give the illusion
that the singer is the player.  I pick only this one nit: the sustain
pedal on Serkin's piano seems sticky, which results in the occasional
buzzing string in soft passages.  Other than that, a winner.

Steve Schwartz

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