Friday, January 05, 2007

The Wonderful Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson

I came under the spell of Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson's voice rather late - not in my life, but in hers. She died this last summer at the age of 52, just a few months after I first heard her singing on a recording of two Bach cantatas with Boston's Emmanuel Music on the Nonesuch label. This is an extraordinary recording. Almost every comment I've read about it refers to its 'luminous spirituality', and I can't really say it any better than that. There is an immediacy to her voice, an intimacy in her expression that both astounds but also holds the listener very close, sometimes painfully so. It is hard not to think of her and her illness and of her early death from breast cancer when listening to these pieces; one almost feels she is whispering to you from her bedside (in fact there was a concert staging of these with her in hospital gown).

I've now been listening to two newly-released live recordings of hers, both issued this year after her death. Both are five-song cycles written for her by her husband, the composer Peter Lieberson, both based on sonnets by well-known twentieth century poets. The first, recorded with the pianist Peter Serkin, has settings from Rainier Maria Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus. The second is from selected love sonnets of Pablo Neruda.

The Rilke Songs, as befits the piano accompaniment and the introspective, metaphysical speculations of the poetry, have a stark intimacy, full of space, angular melodic lines and thin, dense harmonies. This is music that leads one's thoughts into startling, unexpected directions, with few if any resolutions. By contrast, the Neruda songs, as befits the opulence of this most fecund of poets, are lush, and scored for voice and full orchestra, here provided by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of James Levine. The warmth here is profound, the love palpable. It is in these recordings (or maybe the Bach) that I think I most hear Ms. Hunt-Lieberson's professional beginnings as a violist before her singing career took off, in the nuance of her phrasing, in the clear yet unexpected articulation of her expression. There is humor and play here also, from gentle but deeply embedded latin syncopations to sprightly recurring motifs that arch between the separate pieces. Mesmerizing.

That's all I'll say for now, except to urge anybody and everybody to listen to this music. I can only wish I'd discovered her earlier and taken the opportunity to see her sing live, which by all accounts was normally spellbinding. I'm looking forward to acquiring another recently issue recording of her singing songs by New England stalwart composer John Harbison.


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