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Now to a story of love, life and loss. When the American mezzo soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson died of cancer last July at the age of 52, the classical music world mourned the premature silencing of a singular talent. Her rich voice and intense stage presence were widely admired and praised. In the last year of here life, Lieberson had to cancel most of her engagements, but as you are about to hear, she did sing several performances of an orchestral song cycle called "Neruda Songs," composed for her by her husband Peter Lieberson, who found himself inspired by another man's passion for the love of his life. Jeff Lunden has the story.

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JEFF LUNDEN: Even before Peter Lieberson met Lorraine Hunt, he heard a recording of her.

PETER LIEBERSON: In a kind of amazing way, I got the, you know, chills hearing her sing.

LUNDEN: Peter Lieberson spoke to NPR last week by phone from a hospital in Houston, where he's undergoing treatment for lymphoma.

LIEBERSON: I realized it was a kind of force that I was listening to. It wasn't the trained voice so much that impressed me, it was the soul behind it.

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LUNDEN: Peter Lieberson and Lorraine Hunt worked together on his opera, "Ashoka's Dream," in Santa Fe during the summer of 1997 and fell in love. During that time, Lieberson came across a book with a shocking pink cover in the Albuquerque airport and picked it up. It was Chilean poet Pablo Neruda's "100 Love Sonnets."

LIEBERSON: And I just glanced through them and they were so passionate and beautiful. And the words were words that I would have spoken to Lorraine. And I thought immediately on the spot that I must set these, at some point, for Lorraine.

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LUNDEN: It took Lieberson several years before he got around to writing "Neruda Songs." But with a co-commission from both the Los Angeles and the Boston Symphonies, he chose five of the poems, each representing a different phase of love, from first blush to final parting. Remarkably, he didn't consult with his wife as he was writing them, presenting them as a fait accompli, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson told NPR in 2004.

LORRAINE HUNT LIEBERSON: We'd been together a while so he was really tuned into my voice, and so I didn't really have to say much at all about what he had written for me. He was right on as far as, you know, range and technical ease of the vocal lines.

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JAMES LEVINE: These songs were a kind of miracle.

LUNDEN: James Levine conducted the premier of "Neruda Songs" in Boston in November 2005, which is where the performance on the new CD was recorded.

LEVINE: At this time we didn't have any idea that we would lose Lorraine so soon, but Peter could hardly have written a more appropriate piece in every respect to her talent, to her artistry, to her emotion and intelligence and everything that she had which was really extraordinary.

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LUNDEN: The musical language of "Neruda Songs" is lush and romantic, like this, the fourth song in the cycle, which in English translates to: And now you're mine, rest with your dream in my dream. Conductor James Levine says Peter Lieberson's compositional style - he started out writing dissonant 12-tone music - has changed with these songs.

LEVINE: Peter, who has written a great many thorny pieces early on, somehow was inspired to another kind of music in this piece. These songs, I think, fall in the category or very great and very accessible, which is a combination almost as rare as the opposite.

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LUNDEN: New Yorker music critic Alex Ross says he's run out of adjectives to describe the emotional effect of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing. And the combination of her voice and Peter Lieberson's music is no exception.

ALEX ROSS: There is a dimension to these songs which is especially moving and almost too much to take at times because it is about the love between two people and about the impermanence of love. And the final song is called "My Love, If I Die and You Don't" - that's how it begins - and urges the lover not to mourn his or her passing. And the music, the tranquility of the music sort of sends that message.

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LUNDEN: Peter Lieberson.

LIEBERSON: We had a very short time together in some sense. We only had nine years. But in many other ways it was very full, because we were together almost continuously. And after I heard these pieces and the way she sang them, there was a sense of completion, a sense that I'd finally done what I really wanted to do and I was able to express my love for Lorraine in music.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden.

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