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New Releases Showcase Lieberson's Vocal Talent
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New Releases Showcase Lieberson's Vocal Talent


Mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson died a little over five years ago at the height of her career at the age of 52. She was universally admired for her great voice and expressive power. Just when it seemed we weren't going to hear her sing anything new, we now have a number of never before released live performances.

Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has a review.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. LORRAINE HUNT LIEBERSON (Mezzo-soprano): (Singing in foreign language)

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: In the liner notes to a new CD of two live concerts by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the director Stephen Wadsworth, who worked with her, says what a lot of people who loved her and cherished her singing must also feel. Her work has such immediacy, he writes, is so alive, that I even dread hearing her sometimes, because it makes me miss her and feel the just plain awfulness of her absence.

I was very lucky to live in Boston around the time a young violist named Lorraine Hunt moved there. She also sang. One of the people who noticed her was Craig Smith, the late conductor of Boston's Emmanuel Music. She played in the Emmanuel Orchestra, then Smith started casting her in opera, and so she also caught the attention of the brilliant stage director Peter Sellars, Smith's working partner in some of the 20th century's most exciting opera productions.

In 1985, she had a major breakthrough - as Sesto, the son of the assassinated Pompey, in the Smith/Sellars production of Handel's "Julius Caesar." Her performance was ferocious, tormented and terrifying. Decca finally issued the DVD of that production after her death, and it remains a landmark.

Fortunately, much of her later concert work has been preserved. Conductor Nicholas McGegan's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra label, PBP, has released two live concert recordings. One, from 1991, has Lieberson singing a selection of Handel arias, including two from Julius Caesar. But there's also a new addition to the Lieberson recorded repertory: her sublime singing, from a 1995 concert of the Berlioz song cycle "Nuit d'ete" - "Summer Nights" - one of the most gorgeous pieces of vocal music ever written.

Lieberson was a thrilling Berlioz singer - ask anyone who heard her at the Met as the tragic Carthaginian Queen Dido in Berlioz's epic "The Trojans." The songs of love and regret in "Nuit d'ete" are on a smaller scale, but Berlioz seems to have composed his long, spun-out melodies just for Lieberson's seamless legato and creamy tone. Here's the opening song, the happiest, "Villanelle, with its lovers gathering lilies of the valley in the spring.

(Soundbite of song, "Villanelle")

Ms. LIEBERSON: (Singing in foreign language)

SCHWARTZ: Harmonia Mundi Records has also released a couple of new Lieberson albums: a CD of excerpts from her Handel recordings and another live concert, this one exquisitely accompanied by pianist Peter Serkin at the Ravinia Festival in 2004. It's a very sophisticated and personal program, including songs by Brahms and Mozart, cantatas by Mozart - Masonic and noble - and Handel, and Debussy's erotic, sensual "Chansons de Bilitis." Here is a bit of Brahms, a more grown-up lullaby than the one we usually get to hear.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. LIEBERSON: (Singing in foreign language)

SCHWARTZ: A special treat on this CD are the encores. This one is a duet from Handel's "Julius Caesar," with her friend countertenor Drew Minter, who sings the role of Cornelia, the mother of Lieberson's Sesto. The two are weeping over what may be their permanent separation.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. LIEBERSON and Ms. DREW MINTER (Countertenor): (Singing in foreign language)

SCHWARTZ: Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sang a lot as a soprano before she lowered her range to mezzo-soprano. Her husband, composer Peter Lieberson, who died earlier this year, apparently didn't want to release any of her performances as a soprano. I hope the Lieberson estate might reconsider. We need the full picture of this extraordinary, incandescent artist.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and teaches in the creative writing MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed new CDs of live concert performances by the late mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

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