Peter Lieberson’s final masterpiece performed with mesmerizing eloquence by Gerald Finley, the FRSO and Hannu Lintu

On this side of the Atlantic, Peter Lieberson’s music gets way too few outings. Despite being championed by some keen advocates over the years, most notably Oliver Knussen, many key works by Lieberson’s are yet to be discovered here in Europe.

One giant leap was taken at the Helsinki Music Centre this week, with Gerald Finley, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Hannu Lintu performing Lieberson’s haunting final opus, the dark-hued Neruda cycle, Songs of Love and Sorrow (2007-10). In conjunction with this week’s performances, the song cycle was also recorded for the first time, for a subsequent CD release.

Written as a memorial for Lieberson’s second wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the composer himself was already seriously ill with lymphoma while composing the five-song cycle. Against all odds, Lieberson was able to finish Songs of Love and Sorrow in the winter of 2010. The cycle was premiered in Boston, with Finley as soloist, in March 2010, a year before the composer’s passing, at the age of sixty-four.

The son of the choreographer Vera Zorina and Goddard Lieberson, the president of Columbia records, Lieberson’s early music was rooted in postwar modernism. Pieces like Concerto for Four Groups of Instruments (1972/1973) were heavily influenced by Stravinsky’s late style. Yet, from Accordance (1975-76) on, refined, gently rocking rhythmic signature began to gain prominence, to an alluring effect.

Intricate rhythms, dazzling colours and riveting instrumentation burst into full bloom in the orchestral tour-de-force, Drala (1986), paving the way for the composer’s more sensual mature style. By Songs of Love and Sorrow, Lieberson’s music had transcended into the realm of translucent orchestration, sublime harmonies and haunting melodic lines.

Setting five sonnets by Neruda, Songs of Love and Sorrow deals with our earthly pleasures, sensual and emotional, and their entaglement with all-pervasive undercurrent of sorrow and loss. Conceived as a contemporary Das Lied von der Erde, Songs of Love and Sorrow is a masterpiece, a perfect gem, flickering with light and shade.

The cycle opens with a motto subject of sublime passion, scored for two solo celli. This brief statement reappears throughout the cycle, to a fascinating effect. The solo voice enters, accompanied by delicate, chamber-like scoring. Lieberson’s exquisite vocal lines are firmly rooted in the rhythms inherent in the poetry itself. Devoid of all mannerism, the voice hovers between ecstasy and resignation, resulting in a sonic journey of shattering beauty.

Scored for strings, double woodwinds, horns and trumpets, joined by piano, harp, timpani and two percussionists, the orchestra rarely comes together, save for brief tutti passages. Instead, Lieberson draws various chamber ensembles from his instrumental setup, yielding to a celebration of orchestral colour.

With delicate word-painting, the music and the text are fused seamlessly together into a spellbinding whole, a sounding microcosmos of rare beauty and communicativeness.

Finley sung the solo part with mesmerizing eloquence and admirable attention to every detail and nuance. With Lintu at the helm, the formidable musicians of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conveyed Lieberson’s delicate counterpoint with splendid finesse and dazzling array of colour.

Well recieved by the Finnish audience, Songs of Love and Sorrow will undoubtably become a sought-after item, once the premiere recording is released. Who knows, maybe we are celebrating the advent of our belated discovery of Lieberson’s unique music here and now.

On the second half of the evening, another astonishing musical farewell was heard. Anton Bruckner spent the last nine years of his life writing his Ninth Symphony (1887-1896), the epitome of his symphonic output. Interrupted by various illnesses, as well as revisions of his earlier scores, composing of the Ninth turned into a prolonged race against deteriorating health, culminating in Bruckner’s death in the fall of 1896, at the age of seventy-two.

Upon the composer’s death, the first three movements were finished in full score, as was the most of the finale. Lacking a coda, the finale manuscript lay on Bruckner’s desk, as his friends took pages from it as souvenirs, while paying their last visits to the deceased composer.

Though a painstakingly completed performing version of the finale is now finally available, championed by Sir Simon Rattle and Daniel Harding, among others, the symphony is still most often performed in its three-movement guise. While a compelling performance can be based on either of these editions, the inner drama of the three-movement version has its indisputable charm.

Concluding with Bruckner’s most staggeringly original Adagio, the three-movement symphony bears transcending definitiveness, as demonstated, once again, by tonight’s performance.

In its three-movement form, the Ninth Symphony contains two vast symphonic canvases, separated by a demonic scherzo, balanced by a sweeping trio. There is splendid symmetry found in this architectural layout, yielding to a satisfying whole.

The opening movemet grows into an extended sonata arc, based on three theme groups, providing seemingly endless flow of musical material, developed with the full extent of Bruckner’s symphonic logic and imagination. Marked Feierlich, misterioso, the first movement is an awe-inspiring journey into a world of stark contrasts, clad in sonic and harmonic extremes.

As always with Bruckner’s cyclical development of his musical material, pacing and balancing are of utmost importance. With Lintu, the first movement was well architectured, without compromising the often tumultuous clashes of musical material. The FRSO performed with wonderful clarity, resulting in marvellously trasparent textures.

In the fierce scherzo, Lintu’s tempi were absolutely spot on, enhancing the sonic menace inherent in the music. With agile strings, mighty brass and luminous winds, not forgetting the ever-important timpani, the music was clad in gorgeous orchestral guise. Balanced by the dexterously swift trio, the second movement was a rivetingly intense experience.

The adagio opens with a surge into the depth of orchestral colour, provided by the solemn brass and soaring strings, with delicate nuances from the winds. Here, Bruckner employs the constantly transforming combination of four horns and four Wagner tubas to a stunning effect.

The music builds up to thrilling climaxes, with antiphonal passages for the horns and wagner tubas, in dialogue with trumpets, trombones and the bass tuba. Following each climax, the music breaks down into frail, chamber-like textures. Each time, new momentum is gained, until the mounting tension bursts into a shatteringly dissonant brass chord.

Concluding with a transcending coda, the music finally reaches resolution, and lands on a sustained brass chord, accompanied by a string pizzicato. The ensuing silenece is an entity of its own.

Performed with refined musicality by Lintu and the orchestra, the adagio was a luminous journey into the farthest reaches of the Bruckner realm. An apt closing for the evening and for the orchestra’s fabulous autumn season. A fulfillment.


Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Hannu Lintu, conductor


Gerald Finley, baritone


Peter Lieberson: Songs of Love and Sorrow (2007-10)

Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, WAB 109 (1887-1806)


Music Centre, Helsinki

Wednesday 11 December 2019, 7 pm

© Jari Kallio

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