SPANISH LOVE SONGS. Songs by Granados, Turina, Rodrigo, Montsalvatge, Mompou, Roussel, Ravel, Chabrier, Wolf, Schumann, MorenoTorroba, Sondheim, and others.
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo); Joseph Kaiser (tenor); Steven Blier (piano); Michael Barrett (piano).
Bridge 9228 (F) (DDD) TT: 67:47

A great idea, intelligently carried out. Spain has occupied a mythic place in the European imagination, a little like the Old West in the American one. It certainly caught the attention of pre-Romantics like Mozart or echt-Romantics like Byron, both of whom seized on Don Juan. Yet despite the efforts of such Spanish writers as Yradier, a songwriting genius at hitting the Spanish idiom (Bizet mistook one of his pieces for a folk song and threw it into Carmen), most "Spanish" songs came from writers in France, Germany, and Russia. Schumann has a marvelous, Liebeslieder-Walzer-type cycle called Spanisches Liederspiel as well as a more conventional cycle Spanische Liebeslieder. Hugo Wolf, as was his habit, set an entire book of poems in his Spanisches Liederbuch cycle. It's a bit disconcerting to come across a reference to the Fluss Guadalquivir, let me tell you. Of the long infatuation of French composers with Spain, one need mention only Carmen. The great Spanish art song written by Spaniards happened a little later (leaving aside centuries of zarzuela for a moment), with the awakening of Spanish musical nationalism.

Highlights of the disc include Yradier's classic "La paloma," Lieberson's heartbreaking rendition of Granados's "El mirar de la maja," Kaiser's Fauré-like reading of de Grignon's "Larirà-Abril," green and alive as Spring. We don't get a one-size-fits-all Spanish, either, but a scrupulous regard for the different regions. The Moorish influence in the south of Spain is well-represented by the wailing of Turina's "Farruca" and of two excerpts from Rodrigo's Cuatro canciones sefardies. Vocally, Lieberson scores her considerable best with a vocalize arrangement of Ravel's Habanera and dramatically with a shattering account of Wolf's "Komm, O Tod, von Nacht umgeben." I'm usually not that big on Wolf's songs, since they often strike me as so much minor Wagnerian noodling around, but Lieberson (and I should also mention her collaborator Steven Blier) make me care.

Then there's the stuff that's just pure fun: a vocal arrangement of Chabrier's España and two zarzuela excerpts -- one from Moreno-Torroba's Lucia Fernando and Pablo Luna's "De España vengo" from El niño judio. The last two typify the zarzuela repertoire: melodic gems that instantly call Spain to mind. We even get an excerpt from Sondheim's Company -- the satiric duet "Barcelona," where a narcissist Bobby practices mind games on a stewardess to get her to ditch her job (a flight to Barcelona) for a few more minutes in bed. Lieberson and Kaiser walk a delicate line among pathos, humor, and sharp insight into character.

This CD represents, in effect, another memorial to the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. A project to produce a studio recording of this repertoire failed to materialize, due to conflicting schedules. We have here a live performance from a Caramoor Festival. It's not the attendant audience noises -- the coughs, the whispers, the squirming in the seats -- that get to me, but that Lieberson sings at less than her best. She's slightly under pitch at the start of the recital and less focused throughout. Nevertheless, as always, she communicates like a Vulcan mind-meld, and her interpretations are gorgeously detailed. Joseph Kaiser is in better voice, but interpretively rougher. Nevertheless, in a few years he has a fair chance to become a really marvelous Lieder singer. He has both taste and an ability to dramatize the situation of a song, to place himself as the "teller of the tale." Barrett and Blier have been lovers of song and explorers of its byways for years. Their enthusiasm infects you.

S.G.S. (March 2008)