Winter harvest

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  December 12, 2006

Three recordings of live Hunt Lieberson performances have just appeared on CD: John Harbison’s magical setting of six poems by Elizabeth Bishop, North and South (with the Chicago Chamber Musicians, on Naxos) and two Peter Lieberson cycles: the austere Rilke Songs (accompanied by Peter Serkin, from the Ravinia Festival, on Bridge Records), and Neruda Songs (with the Boston Symphony Orchestra led by James Levine, on Nonesuch — the first Levine/BSO collaboration to emerge on commercial disc). Bridge is also reissuing another major Harbison work she premiered, Books 3 and 4 of Mottetti di Montale (http//:www.BridgeRecords.com). Besides our memories of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, her recordings are now what we have left, and these are among her most moving, and most ravishing. I also hope that these are just the tip of the iceberg, and that her magnificent performances with the BSO, the Metropolitan Opera, and Emmanuel Music will become part of a permanent recorded legacy.

Although quite different from Hunt Lieberson, the Austrian mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager is also a remarkable singer. Making an auspicious Bank of America Celebrity Series recital debut, accompanied by the outstanding Scottish pianist Malcolm Martineau, she sang “art songs” in German (Schubert, Brahms, and Grieg), French (Liszt), and English (Haydn). Kirchschlager is glamorous (a cross between Helena Bonham Carter and Annette Bening) and projects a large personality. Pushing her mop of dark curls out of her eyes, she laughs out loud or winks when she finds the end of a song amusing; when she’s serious or heroic, she seems to elevate in stature. Her English accent is little rudimentary (“away” became “a-vah-ee”). Her voice tends to get breathy whenever she gets intense, and has occasional rough patches, but mainly it’s beautifully centered up and down the scale, with a warm, coppery luster.

This was a real lieder recital. Even the encores were classic songs (rather than opera arias or crossover schlock: more Liszt (“Es muss ein Wundesbares sein”) and Poulenc’s droll “Hôtel” (a song about wanting to smoke rather than work). She juxtaposed familiar masterworks (almost the entire Schubert sequence) with more unusual pieces (most of the enchanting Grieg set), and within each set she contrasted “interior” songs with lighter gems. Haydn’s poignant setting of Viola’s famous speech from Twelfth Night (“She never told her love,/But . . . sat, like Patience on a monument,/Smiling at grief”) answered his charming “Mermaid’s Song.” Brahms’s declaration of eternal devotion, “Von ewige Liebe” ended a set that began with his teasing “In der Schatten meiner Locken” (“In the shadow of my tresses”). There was no dross. The recital built steadily to a series of grimly powerful, rhapsodic quasi-recitatives by Liszt. Here Kirchschlager finally (though gently) admonished the listeners — most of whom seemed unfamiliar with the appropriate etiquette for the dying art of lieder recitals — to save their applause till the end of the entire set.

Martineau added color, atmosphere, and narrative continuity. He’ll be back at Jordan Hall January 21, in another Celebrity Series concert, accompanying another terrific mezzo, Susan Graham.

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