BRAHMS: Unbewegte laue Luft. Ruhe, Süßliebchen, im Schatten. Von ewiger Liebe. HANDEL: Arias from La Lucrezia. 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 (F) (DDD) TT: 76:39.

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 übertremolo 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 naïades" ("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 Flûte 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 clichés 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 cliché 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.

S.G.S. (December 2009)