BRAHMS: 8 Songs, op. 57. SCHUMANN: 4 Lieder from Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, op. 98a. Frauenliebe und -leben, op. 42. DEBUSSY: Fêtes galantes -- Fantoches. HANDEL: Theodora -- Angels, ever bright and fair.
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo); Julius Drake (piano).
Wigmore Hall Live WHLive0024 (F) (DDD) TT: 69:31

More recordings of the beloved singer, the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, continue to dribble out -- necessarily live recordings, of course. The recital comes from London's Wigmore Hall, 1999. I think it a bit unusual, since I associate Lieberson with the Baroque, Mozart, and the contemporary. This program concentrates on the hard-core German Romantic repertoire.

Lieberson's voice belongs to her alone. She hasn't the disconcerting wobble that afflicts so many mezzos. Unlike, say, Janet Baker, she also hasn't the Devonshire cream in her sound. It's an extremely clear tone, even bright, which in a lesser singer can be unforgiving if pitch isn't absolutely dead on. Lieberson approaches these songs on her own path as well, I suspect because of her immersion in the Baroque early on. In general, her interpretations -- unlike, say, Schwarzkopf's or Ludwig's -- are less "stagey," although no less dramatic. It's the difference between Olivier and Eastwood. Lieberson pitches her readings lower, more "naturally." She rarely underlines anything. She speaks not from the stage, but across the table.

Hard as it may be for some to credit, I find Brahms neglected as a songwriter. Compared to those of Schubert, Schumann, Strauss, and Mahler, you don't often come across his songs on recitals, and when you do, they are very often the same small set of songs. Although trashy texts often attracted him, that shouldn't pose much of a problem to monolingual Anglophone audiences, and his music is good enough to make you forget the poetic worth of the lyrics. His op. 57 sets poems by Georg Friedrich Daumer (used for the Liebeslieder Waltzes as well), also a philosopher and translator of the Persian poet Hafiz. Indeed, Daumer was known as the German Hafiz (but only in Germany; Iranians probably have other opinions). Back in Brahms's day, people considered this hot stuff, and several of Brahms's friends warned him off these poems. In the age of the Stones and Courtney Love, it's all rather tame, of course. In terms of Brahms's idiom, nevertheless, these songs insinuate themselves like a cat between your feet -- very sensuous. I find Lieberson a little too understated. I want somebody close to (but not over) the top, on the grounds that the passionate tempests of the verse drew Brahms in the first place.

On the other hand, Lieberson scores in both of the Schumanns. The composer's Wilhelm Meister songs includes a total of, I believe, eight or nine, and he also turned to the work for his large-scale Requiem für Mignon, op. 98b, from the same year. These songs blur the distinction between Lied and dramatic scena. Lieberson sings those poems associated with the character Mignon. "Kennst du das Land" (do you know the land?) comes closest to the traditional Lied, nearly strophic, with surprising harmonic changes at the refrain. "Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt" (only he who knows longing) sets the Goethe poem straight once through and then broken phrases from it here and there for dramatic effect. Mignon, a none-too-stable girl, essentially breaks down as she recalls her native land, Italy, from which she was abducted. The last two songs, "Heiss mich nicht reden" (don't bid me speak) and "So lasst mich sheinen" (let me appear), tighten an already-high string. Lieberson in a sense has had practice doing these kinds of songs in, for example, the "mad" heroines of baroque opera -- Dejanira from Handel's Hercules, to name one. Compared to other singers I've heard, Lieberson foregoes scenery chewing for something lower-key, subtler, and evoking several emotions at once. This is superior Lieder singing.

I've always harbored ambiguous feelings toward Schumann's Frauenliebe und -leben cycle. On the one hand, the poems, by Adelbert von Chamisso, portraying a woman's love of her husband, reek of the Victorian "angel in the house," an icon that, quite frankly, pretty much creeps me out. The woman worships her husband with an extravagance that makes me suspect she's secretly poisoning his brandy and cigars. If my wife started behaving that way toward me, I'd start looking for where she hid the hatchet. On the other hand, the music ranks among the most gorgeous Schumann ever wrote. It comes from his annus mirabilis of song-writing, 1840, the year he finally married Clara and during which he wrote an amazing 130 really tremendous songs. Frauenliebe und -leben (woman's love and life) tells a little story of a courtship, marriage, children, and death of a spouse. Unlike Brahms or Schubert, Schumann, a prose master as well as a composer, was extremely sensitive to the quality of the texts he set, although I find him guilty of a major lapse here. Indeed, he once wrote that a great song can't happen without a great text, an axiom which fortunately these songs disprove. As a songwriter, Schumann builds on Schubert's innovations. The movement of the poem very largely determines the musical structure, often against the stanza structure. Schumann has very few strictly strophic songs. Also the piano acts more independently than in Schubert. One can hear it taking up vocal snatches in "Er, der Herrlichste von allen" (he the most magnificent of all) and especially in "Helft mir, O Schwestern" (help me, o sisters), with its Dvorák-like arpeggios. The most famous instance in this cycle occurs in the final song, "Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan" (now you have done me your first injury), where the husband has died and the woman decides to wait for her own death. The piano rises to the level of commentator as it recalls the music of the first song, "Seit ich ihn gesehen" (since I saw him), where the heroine first realizes she loves her future husband. All of this makes for a more complex psychology than the poems alone. However, I confess that my favorite song of the cycle is one of the simplest -- "Du Ring an meinem Finger" (you ring on my finger), also the cycle's breakout single.

There have been several outstanding recordings of the cycle, including Lotte Lehmann with Bruno Walter at the piano, Janet Baker and Daniel Barenboim, Edith Mathis and Christoph Eschenbach, and Anne Sofie von Otter accompanied by Bengt Forsberg. I'm told of an "exquisite" performance with Ferrier and Walter, but I haven't heard it. I love Janet Baker's performance, mainly because I love her voice, but I must say that Lieberson outshines everybody I know in the way she puts these songs across. Somehow she manages to overcome the insidious treacle of the verse, painting a believable (and desirable) picture of unbelievably pure devotion. In the final song, she gives the illusion of fading away into old age and death.

For the encores of the Debussy and Handel, Lieberson finds herself on more familiar ground. I hope there's a recording somewhere of an entire Fêtes galantes. Her Handel always had the virtue of humanity and acuity. The composer was never merely a spinner of notes for her, as he has been for so many other singers, but a creator of drama.

Julius Drake accompanies beautifully, although I miss that final bit of telepathy that one can get between Stephen Varcoe and Penelope Thwaites, Janet Baker and Martin Isepp, or Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore -- that extra jolt that makes you believe singer and accompanist are one and the same. The sound is fine. Audience noise is kept to a minimum. You barely realize an audience is there until the applause.

S.G.S. (April 2009)