Vocal Recording of the Year – Gerald Finley sings Lieberson with Lintu and the FRSO

Manifestations of immense, refined beauty, the late works of Peter Lieberson are such masterpieces of the 21st century music. Among his oeuvre, the two song cycles based on the poetry of Pablo Neruda are peerless in their detailed conception and heightened emotional impact, clad in astounding vocal and orchestral raiments.    

Premiered in 2005, Neruda Songs, written for the composer’s second wife Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, won Lieberson the Grawemeyer Award fro Music Composition in 2008. In 2007, he began composing a second cycle, Songs of Love and Sorrow (2007-10) as a memorial for his wife, who died of breast cancer in 2006.

The composer himself was already seriously ill with lymphoma while composing the new five-song cycle. However, 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 Gerald Finley as soloist, in March 2010, a year before the composer’s passing, at the age of sixty-four.

While a live recording of Neruda Songs was released on Nonesuch in 2008, Songs of Love and Sorrow have not been committed to disc, until now. Recorded in conjunction with concert performances by Finley and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Hannu Lintu, at the Helsinki Music Centre on 9-11 December 2019, Songs of Love and Sorrow now appear on the new Ondine album. 

Although it took ten years for Songs of Love and Sorrow to get its premiere recording, it has definitely been worth the wait. 

Scored for solo baritone and an orchestra of strings, duple woodwinds, horns and trumpets, joined by piano, harp, timpani and two percussionists, the twenty-five-minute song cycle is a sublime affair. 

Lieberson’s vocal setting is rooted in haunting melodic lines, aptly portraying the sensual and emotional sphere of Neruda’s fine sonnets. Beneath their white heat, a dark-hued undercurrent of the inevitability of sorrow and loss is entangled with the translucent textures. Flickering with light and shade, Songs of Love and Sorrow is a precious gem.

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.

While Lieberson’s late music is far removed from the Stravinsky-influenced postwar modernism of his early scores, the extraordinary attention to vocal nuance and minutiae instrumental detail is ever present in the score of Songs of Love and Sorrow

The cycle is set in motion with a motto subject scored for two solo celli. Its sublime passion is taken up by the orchestra, yielding to a delicate, twenty-bar introduction. The solo voice enters, delivering the first lines of Sonnet XLVI with refined, clear-cut contours. 

Out of these carefully selected ingredients, a tableau of immense beauty arises, as the vocal line hovers in weightlessness, escorted by a bed of strings and fleeting contributions from winds, keyboard and harp, until the solo cello returns to escort the music back into silence.

The second sonnet stems from a gently rocking base rhythm, marked with swing. Played by suave strings, the introduction paves the way for the passionate stanzas of the solo voice. Gorgeously scored, the Sonnet XII is clad in an astounding sounding guise.

The pace mounts with the ensuing Sonnet LII. Building swiftly towards recurring forte statements, the music is heated and alight with passion, both vocal and instrumental. On the final pages, the solo voice and the orchestral fabric cool down into a subtle coda. 

The motto theme recurs in the opening of Sonnet LXIX. Although the shortest of the five, the fourth sonnet is the emotional core of the cycle. With its intricate interplay between the translucent vocal part and evocative instrumental lines, Sonnet LXIX is a heavenly creation.    

Closing the cycle, Sonnet LXXXII is conceived as a musical summa, combining motives and gestures from the previous sonnets and resolving in shatteringly beautiful, ecstatic resignation. On the last two pagers, the gentle string pulse, joined by a solo horn and flutes, escort the vocal line to its final rest. 

Gerald Finley, Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra reheasing Songs of Love and Sorrow at the Helsinki Music Centre on 10 December 2019. © Jari Kallio

Finley’s intricate mastery over the solo line is evident throughout Songs of Love and Sorrow, yielding to a tremendous performance. Ever perfectly nuanced, clad in sensuous colours of light and dark, the solo part is set alight with dazzling sonic glow. 

With Lintu at the helm the fabulous musicians of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra are extraordinary fellow travelers for their soloist. The refined orchestral fabric is brought to its sounding guise with perfection and commitment, resulting in admirable teamwork.

Beautifully recorded by the Ondine team, the vocal line and the orchestral textures are aptly focused and balanced. A fusion of natural acoustics and sensitive engineering, this is the vocal recording of the year, no question about it.         

On the new Ondine album, Songs of Love and Sorrow is coupled with The Six Realms (2000). Written for Yo-Yo Ma and rooted in Tibetan Buddhism, The Six Realms is concerto for cello and orchestra, reflecting the different aspects of our human consciousness. 

Musically speaking, there are no evident orientalist effects in the score of The Six Realms. Instead, it is a compelling fusion of various ingredients of our western concerto traditions, clad in quintessentially contemporary guise. 

In order to solve the perennial problems of balance between a solo cello and a large orchestra, the score calls for a refined amplification for the solo part. Thus, Lieberson sets himself free of the usual restraints of the orchestral accompaniment, and seeks to write a brilliantly coloured, at times flamboyant orchestral fabric around the solo line. 

Conceived as concise portraits, the six movements are each relatively brief, resulting in a twenty-five minute concerto. Almost cinematic in their vividness, each movement builds up to a poignant mini-drama, clad in invigorating sonorities. 

Splendidly performed by Anssi Karttunen,the FRSO and Lintu on the December 2019 studio take, The Six Realms is an intriguing piece. Its impact is enhanced by repeated listening, crediting the fine-tuned performance and the elaborate recording. 

The Ondine album is a much-needed addition to the all-too-sparse Lieberson discography. Not too often performed here in Europe, the Lieberson oeuvre is a treasure chest as this recording justly testifies.   

The Ondine album is a much-needed addition to the all-too-sparse Lieberson discography. Not too often performed here in Europe, the Lieberson oeuvre is a treasure chest as this recording justly testifies.   

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Hannu Lintu, conductor

Gerlald Finley, bass-baritone

Anssi Karttunen, cello

Peter Lieberson: The Six realms (1999-2000) for amplified violoncello and orchestra

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

Recorded at the Helsinki Music Centre, December 2019

Ondine ODE 1356-2 (2020), 1 CD

© Jari Kallio 

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