BERLIOZ Les Nuits d'été HANDEL Arias
Since Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s premature death in 2006 she has acquired an almost mythical aura, akin to that surrounding Kathleen Ferrier and Jacqueline Du Pré. Yet even without romanticising hindsight, these recordings reveal a singer whose combination of vocal beauty and passionate urgency of expression was unsurpassed in her generation. Her Irene in Glyndebourne’s Theodora was the most searing single Handel performance I have ever heard.
During the early 1990s Hunt Lieberson’s pure, evenly produced voice morphed from soprano to warm, full-bodied mezzo, sensuous without matronliness. Titled, simply, ‘A Tribute’, the Harmonia Mundi album draws from the many Handel recordings she made with Nicholas McGegan between 1989 and 1995. As a soprano, she sings the falsely accused Susanna’s arias with grave tenderness, vividly suggesting the heroine’s mingled pathos and spiritual strength in ‘If guiltless blood’. Perhaps the jubilation in ‘Rejoice greatly’ is a touch hectic, for which McGegan – usually sympathetic, occasionally pernickety – must take some of the blame. But her Theodora (several years before she moved down to the role of Irene) is the most youthful and most vulnerable-sounding on disc: reverent without mawkishness in ‘Angels, ever bright and fair’, almost unbearably moving in the de profundis aria ‘With darkness deep’, death-longing etched into the very texture of her voice.
Ariodante was Hunt Lieberson’s favourite Handel role. Her voice glints and darts in the exultant bravura arias, the coloratura always perfectly even, while in the lamenting ‘Scherza infida’ she veers between contemptuous accusation and numb desolation, then uses the embellishments in the da capo to create a sense of mounting panic. She brings the same mix of vocal purity, passion and emotional nakedness to a clutch of arias Handel wrote for Margherita Durastanti.
A different selection of arias for Durastanti appears on the Philharmonia Baroque Live disc. Hunt Lieberson’s voice occasionally acquires an uncharacteristic edge here and the recording suffers from intermittent pre-echo. Yet her immediacy and intensity of response are as riveting as ever, whether in Sesto’s triumphant ‘La giustizia’ or the hushed inwardness of Radamisto’s ‘Ombra cara’. For many, the prime attraction here will be Berlioz’s cycle of love, disenchantment and loss, which Hunt Lieberson never recorded in the studio. Although she transposes several of the songs down a third, Hunt Lieberson rivals the famous recordings by Régine Crespin and Janet Baker. ‘Villanelle’ is as fresh and smiling as you could wish, while the burnished contralto depths of her voice come into their own in her mesmeric performance of ‘Le spectre de la rose’. Under McGegan’s discerning direction the transparent period sonorities make you marvel more than ever at the atmospheric delicacy of Berlioz’s orchestration; and while never stinting on the impassioned climaxes, Hunt Lieberson shows an uncanny feel for the cycle’s mysterious half-lights. In no other performance I know do singer and orchestra take such care over Berlioz’s demands for pianissimo, ppp, even pppp. In sum, a cherishable memento of a great artist who always sang, as a colleague once said, ‘as if every performance were her last’.