BERLIOZ: Les Nuits d'été, op. 7. HANDEL: Arias.
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson; Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra/Nicholas McGegan.
Philharmonia Baroque PBP-01 TT: 71:44.

Smart, loving accounts. More from the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who seems in the process of amassing a large posthumous discography. Most of these recordings come from live concerts, as various organizations check the contents of their vaults. There's every reason to do this. Lieberson sang beautifully and intelligently. Many of her listeners felt as if she sang directly to them. She communicated. However, I must admit that, although I thought her one of the finest singers of her time, I never crossed over that last step, where her singing actually became part of me. It rarely happens to me anyway. I can think of Janet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, and Judith Raskin -- perhaps Geraint Evans, Simon Keenlyside, and Roderick Williams among the men -- but that's about it. Still, that's a matter of temperament. You never can tell whom someone will fall for.

All of Lieberson's virtues display themselves here: her subtle way with a phrase, her tunefulness, her intelligent declamation of lyrics, and her dramatic sensibility. People knew her for her Bach, Handel, and Mozart, as well as for her forays into contemporary rep, but she could sing just about anything.

I've always considered Berlioz's Nuits d'été the first set of orchestral songs, a genre culminating in Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Berlioz originally wrote them for piano and voice to texts by Gautier. We have no idea whether someone commissioned him or he thought they might make him some money. He didn't write them all at once, and they appeared in their original form in 1841. He finished their orchestration in 1856. In their piano form, he actually specifies different voices, but they're seldom done this way. ArkivMusic shows a preponderance of sopranos and mezzos (and at least one counter-tenor). Victoria de los Angeles and Charles Munch with the Boston on RCA introduced me to the cycle. It's still a wonderful performance. I have no idea whether it has ever appeared on CD.

Each of the songs in the cycle hits its mark. "Villanelle," the first and my sentimental favorite, sings joyfully of "gather ye rosebuds." But all the songs show Berlioz the musical dramatist. For example, "Le spectre de la rose" tells the poet's beloved that it was happy to die, just to have been worn by her. In "Sur les lagunes," a fisherman laments his dead love. Here, Berlioz nods to ballad form with the refrain "How bitter is my fate!/Ah, to go to sea without love!" "L'Absence" mourns for the distant beloved. In "Au Cimitière," the beloved is dead again, and apparently her ghost throws the willies into the poet. With the final "L'Ile inconnue," the two lovers head for unknown parts over the seas. The poetry is often maudlin, but Berlioz's tunes are so good, you don't care. In the hands of a really good singing actor, they can make an elegant dramatic effect.

We can say much the same for Handel, whose texts are usually a whole lot worse than Gautier. Many of them don't even make sense. The plots of these operas are on paper too silly to be taken seriously. And yet Handel involves you, scoring dramatic point after dramatic point. The novelist Samuel Butler, way ahead of his time, thought Handel one of the finest dramatists who ever lived, a composer who knew the human soul. In the hands of a great singing actor, I agree. However, too often singers give us only pretty notes.

Not Lieberson. Although she mines the texts for her interpretations, in performance it doesn't seem to matter exactly what words she does sing. She leads us straight to the underlying emotions. Hers is undoubtedly one of the top five Nuits d'été I've ever heard. It's especially interesting because McGegan and his Philharmonia Baroque find themselves in an unfamiliar part of town and acquit themselves with distinction. The overall sound is lighter than a full symphony orchestra, more refined. The cellos especially don't lose their Baroque timbre. It's all to the good. In the Handel, everybody's a gold-star brand. You expect them to do superbly, and they don't disappoint.

Again, these are live recordings. Most of the time, you aren't aware of the audience.

S.G.S. (May 2011)