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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Love’s laments lost

By Norman Lebrecht / January 10, 2007

I am listening to the loveliest, most poignant sound I expect to hear all year, or maybe ever again. It is the voice of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the Californian mezzo-soprano who died last summer of cancer aged 52. She is singing a suite of orchestral songs by her husband, Peter Lieberson, who is himself sick in hospital with lymphoma.

Knowing nothing of their story, I would have been moved by the tender setting of five poems by the Chilean Pablo Neruda, profoundly by the last of them where the poet implores his beloved: ‘if I die, and you don’t, let’s not give grief an even greater field.’ Knowing the couple’s fate elevates the work to an altogether different plane – to the realm of epic tragedy, beside Dido and Aeneas, Romeo and Juliet, David and Jonathan and every other loving pair who were parted before their time. Even before its dawn on record, the love songs of Lorraine and Peter were the materials of a legend in the making.

She was the well-reared child of music teachers in the San Francisco Bay who made off to Mexico as a student when her guitarist boyfriend was jailed for dope smuggling and got the guards to let her share his cell. Back in the Bay, she played principal viola in the Berkeley orchestra under Kent Nagano and new music in a string quartet. The long, languid strokes of her bowing arm did not go to waste. The voice that she found when she moved to Boston with a different boyfriend to study opera was coloured with a deep, instrumental lustre, a smoothness that musicians recognise as ‘legato’. Peter Sellars cast her in Handel’s Julius Caesar in 1985 and she emerged as a Baroque heroine with a timbre, round and deep, that bore a ghostly resemblance to another late starter, the immaculate Kathleen Ferrier.

A fixture in Sellars’ international travelling circus, she appeared at Glyndebourne from 1996 and at the Barbican in a Bach oratorio in which she dressed disturbingly as a hospital patient, in a gown, trailing drips and lines. She dedicated the role to her younger sister, Alexa, who had just died of cancer; few knew that Lorraine had herself been diagnosed. The more her popularity grew, the more she stood apart, shunning interviews, preserving an ethereal mystery.

She met Peter in July 1997 when he was casting his opera, Ashoka’s Dream. He was an East Coast highbrow, son of the record boss Goddard Lieberson and a dissonant modernist until he discovered Buddhism and found an inner stillness, in music as in life. A month after they fell in love, Peter saw a pink volume of Neruda’s love sonnets in an airport book rack and thought ‘the words are the words I would have spoken to Lorraine.’ ‘We read some of the sonnets together in bed,’ she relates, in a note to the new *Nonesuch recording. ‘I read them in Spanish to Peter.’

‘Lorraine and I had nine wonderful years together,’ writes Peter in a parallel note. ‘Sometimes we would cry in each other’s arms out of gratitude that we had finally found one another … we were hardly ever apart.’ She premiered the songs in Los Angeles in May 2005 and recorded them at a repeat concert in Boston in November, eight months before her death. Released in the US last week, the disc shot to number two in the Billboard classical charts; it reaches British outlets in the next few days.

Opening with a reminiscence of Alban Berg’s sultry love music, Lieberson’s Neruda songs undulate like a stream though a canyon, the rhythms dictated by nature. I did not hear a forte in the whole thirty-one minutes, nor a false note. The idiom is late-romantic in the manner of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, but never indulgent of beauty, never decadent and always intriguing in its orchestral effects. It is a work you can hear four times and still want to hear again.

I tried to reach Peter Lieberson on the phone to discuss some aspects of it, only to find that he was under treatment for cancer of the lymphatic cells in a Houston hospital, unable to give interviews. Before Christmas, Peter, 60, managed a few words about the songs on US National Public Radio. ‘After I heard these pieces and the way she sang them,’ he said, ‘there was a sense of completion, a sense that I had finally done what I really wanted to do, and I was able to express my love for Lorraine in music.’

These are songs that will last, timeless in their sincerity, the first concert landmark of the 21st century. ‘This love has not ended,’ sings Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in her last recorded words. ‘It has no death; it is like a long river, only changing lands, and changing lips.’

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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