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Peter Lieberson and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson: Neruda Songs

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I've been listening quite a bit to a number of absolutely gorgeous vocal collections. The first of these, in my opinion, is an absolute must-have disc... an expression of the triumph of love... even in the face of tragedy... and death:

This recording is is an absolutely heart-wrenching experience. The composer, Peter Lieberson (born 1945), studied music and composition with Milton Babbitt and Charles Wuorinen at Columbia. In spite of the strict and rigorous Modernism of his mentors, Lieberson's own music evolved in a far more accessible, lush, and sensuous manner. Lieberson had been enamored of the love poems of Pablo Neruda after having bought the bright pink volume of 100 Love Sonnets for his wife, the mezzo-soprano, Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson. While lying in bed, Lorraine would often read the sonnets to her husband in Spanish. The Neruda Songs were co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony, and the world premiere was given on May 20, 2005, by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting and Hunt Lieberson as soloist. The Boston Symphony performed the work in November 2005 with James Levine, a great supporter of Lieberson's music, conducting.

Lieberson and his wife selected 5 of Neruda's 100 sonnets which he then set to an absolute lush and romantic orchestral arrangement. The music is at once modern and eminently accessible. There are elements of drama, passion, exoticism, Spanish rhythms, sensuality... and ultimately sadness and loss. Each poem and its musical setting reveals a unique and distinctive facet of love as the suite as a whole moves from the most openly rapturous to inevitable and inconsolable grief at separation.

Lieberson obviously composed these works as a great expression of his love for his wife, and one cannot help but draw parallels between the emotional arc of the compositions and Hunt Lieberson's long-running bout with cancer and her pending fate. My thoughts upon first hearing this disc went immediately to the devastating recording of Der Abschied, the final song from Mahler's Song of the Earth as recorded by Bruno Walter and Kathleen Ferrier, who like Hunt-Lieberson was fully aware that she had but a short time left and put forth such emotion into her singing as to be almost unbearable.

The cycle begins with an expression of unadorned joy that clearly registers in Lorraine's voice as she sings "If your eyes were not the color of the moon", conveying the unreakable bond between composer and performer. It is the fifth poem, "My love, if I die and you don't", which truly tugs most at the heart-strings the most deeply as she sings of the eternal fate of true love in spite of... and in the face of mortality. The most sublime moment comes when she repeats the word "amor" at the end with a dream-like, faraway tone. This is magnificent, transcendent work from a singer for the ages and a composer whose enduring love for his wife has inspired his most profound work. There are some critics who have suggested that Lieberson's Neruda Songs might just rival Strauss' Four Last Songs. As much as I love Strauss, I would not be quick to challenge the assertion. This is an absolutely stunning piece of music and an unquestionably moving performance.

Updated 01-17-2010 at 01:01 AM by stlukesguild

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  1. Buh4Bee's Avatar
    St. Luke- this was a nicely written musical review, if I may call it that. Although I am not a huge music fan, you peaked my interest. What a terribly romantic couple the Lieberson's are. Why is it always that these types of couples have to face such devastation as cancer?

    I am so glad you were able to receive so much pleasure from the album. We can't forget art!