Lorraine Hunt Lieberson—an artist for the ages, remembered at Ravinia

By Sebastian Spreng


 Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was a rara avis, not the promotional diva du jour ,but a complete artist. Essentially American in every sense, she had impeccable musicianship and one of the warmest, most lustrous voices of our time. Before becoming a singer, she played, first, violin and, then viola. She knew how to define her instrument with the right words: “my voice of viola.”

 There is more. She had the unusual capacity to illuminate an aria or inhabit a role, making it her own in the most natural way; that innate quality became one of her trademarks. Like Callas, who she was sometimes compared with, she knew how to communicate. In both artists every accent, every embellishment emanated with disarming honesty, justified with undeniable reason; as the Greek diva told her students at Juilliard “go after expression, not fireworks”. Being the Callas opposite, she was the embodiment of that premise.

 In spite of all that, she was not a household name like Callas. Her untimely death at 52 was an immense loss for the musical world. In life, she attained well deserved cult-figure status. Now she resembles another iconic artist who left us far too soon: Kathleen Ferrier.  Now more than ever it is not easy to keep a critical distance from her work, as a matter of fact it never was, nonetheless she emerged remarkable in every aspect. In her case, superlatives are justified.

 Luckily, her recorded legacy is vast but there is always room for more. Slowly and steadily, a flow of late live concerts are being released as is the case of a superb Mahler Symphony No. 2 with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, one of the most brilliant Resurrection symphonies on disc, where she contributed a mesmerizing Urlicht (SFS 821936-0006-2).

 Last year, the Wigmore Hall released her two recitals in that venerable London venue; this month Harmonia Mundi (the label of her earlier triumphs under the leadership of Nicholas McGegan) brings a memorable recital at Ravinia 2004 (Lorraine Hunt Lieberson at Ravinia, HMU 907500), accompanied by her friend, pianist Peter Serkin plus countertenor Drew Minter in a splendid duet (Son nata a lagrimar)  from Handel’s Giulio Cesare.

 The subject of the program is love and lovers. Love imagined, love whispered, love betrayed, love idealized, in sum, transcendent love. The composers are Brahms, Debussy, and Handel and Mozart at the end, in a singular and intriguing progression. 

An intense Brahms Lieder group opens the program. Von ewiger Liebe (Of eternal love), with exemplary legato and dramatic urgency, is a gem, listening to the way she “says” the words “Unsere Liebe sie trennet sich nicht”(Our love shall never end) confirms her inimitable, distinctive approach.

 She literally “owned” Handel’s cantata La Lucrezia  and recorded it magnificently with Harry Bicket in one of her last commercial recordings (AVIE AV 0030). Here with only piano accompaniment she rises to the challenge with magisterial, controlled anguish; each repetition of the central aria Già superbo del mio affanno invested with a different color as a personal statement.  Sensual, evocative and feminine, in Debussy’s Trois Chansons de Bilitis her exquisite rendition could be compared only with the best of Regine Crespin.

 The Mozart selections build towards a unity encompassing several moods (pastoral, operatic, lyric, solemn, sacred) in order to convey a sort of “Mozartian fresco”. The inclusion of  Als Luise die Briefe… (When Louisa Burnt her Faithless Lover’s Letters), gives her a welcomed chance to create a mini-opera in less than three minutes – again embodying  Callas’ famous remark “do not sing Mozart on tiptoes!–  while the Masonic Little German Cantata makes for a grand finale. Nothing more appropriate than her invocation to the Almighty, a farewell reminding the galvanizing classicism of her Dido, Purcell’s or Berlioz’s.

 With the spiritual Deep River – her signature encore –  it is impossible not to think of Marian Anderson, rendered with the same nobility of a voice at the service of music crossing all barriers. And as a last, unforgettable encore, Calling you (from the film Baghdad Café) can make a new classical music fan in an instant. Heartbreaking with no hint of self-pity, a poignant goodbye. The last verse  of this simple movie song – I am calling you, I know you hear me –  haunts the memory in the same way the  Ewig Ewig (Eternally Etternally)  does in Mahler´s Das Lied von der Erde. Lorraine Lieberson became one with music. It’s not the song, it´s the singer.

Born in Santa Fe, Argentina, Sebastian Spreng is a visual artist and music reviewer for newspapers and classical magazines, who has resided in Miami since 1987. Music is often present in his work and many of his exhibits have been based on musical series, including Liederkreis I & II, Sinfonietta, Impromptus, Chamber Music, and Reverberations. www.sebastianspreng.net.

Posted in CD review, CD/DVD, Uncategorized

4 Responses to “Lorraine Hunt Lieberson—an artist for the ages, remembered at Ravinia”

  1. Posted Mar 08, 2009 at 12:51 pm by Melinda Bargreen

    What a beautiful and true-to-life review of a great singer who left us far too soon.

  2. Posted Mar 09, 2009 at 5:29 am by marta rodriguez

    Thank you for this exceptional review and insight on this article. given due merit in this article

  3. Posted Mar 09, 2009 at 1:00 pm by Mercedes Etcheberry

    What an appealing review. It caught my interest!

  4. Posted Mar 12, 2009 at 7:43 pm by Thom Sleeper

    thank you – wonderful review.
    some may also be interested in her heart felt performance of Peter Lieberson’s Neurada Songs.

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Sun Mar 8, 2009
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