Boston Symphony Orchestra in New York

Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28
Neruda Songs
Symphony No.4

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo-soprano)

Heidi Grant Murphy (soprano)

Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 28 November, 2005
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

After almost a year of cancellations that began last winter when Carnegie Hall announced that Lorraine Hunt Lieberson had been hospitalized for a lower-back injury and would be bowing out of a January 23 performance with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, her inability to make scheduled appearances has increased concern among her fans. Five years ago, Hunt Lieberson learned she had breast cancer, and this year’s cancellations caused some to wonder whether the disease had returned. Although she backed out of some high-profile musical events earlier this year – including a recital tour of North America, and the world premiere performances of “Doctor Atomic” by John Adams and Peter Sellars at the San Francisco Opera this past October – she remained committed to a series of concerts with major orchestras that featured “Neruda Songs”, a new work composed by her husband, Peter Lieberson. Last May she appeared as soloist in the world premiere performances with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and on November 25 and 28 she gave the east coast premiere performances in Boston with James Levine conducting. I am happy to report that in this Carnegie Hall performance, which marked the New York premiere of the piece, she both looked and sounded radiant.

Co-commissioned by the Boston Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, “Neruda Songs” is a captivating and highly evocative 25-minute song-cycle that consists of five love sonnets by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. For Peter Lieberson, each poem reflects, in his own words, “a different face in love’s mirror”: from pure appreciation, passion, and joy, to the anguish of separation, and finally, a peaceful sense of being unified even after death. The intimate and lyrical score is inscribed “to my beloved Lorraine”, and indeed every note of the work seems to have been crafted expressly for Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s lustrous voice and strong expressive instincts. The haunting work employs a compelling and lushly chromatic harmonic language that is occasionally marked with Latin dance rhythms and gentle rattles of the maracas. Despite the richly colorful scoring, the musical textures remain delicate and lucid. Following the whispered ending of the final song, a sustained period of silence occurred before the audience erupted into applause and gave the composer and the performers a prolonged and richly deserved standing ovation.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra continues to flourish under Levine. The concert opened with a vividly characterized performance of Till Eulenspiegel that perfectly blended clarity and esprit. Principal horn James Sommerville romped through the treacherous horn solo at the beginning of the piece, and concertmaster Malcolm Lowe’s violin playing of the love theme was especially beautiful.

The program concluded with a fresh and beautifully shaped performance of Mahler’s warm and sunlit Fourth Symphony. Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy substituted for Dorothea Röschmann, who had to cancel her appearance because of illness in her family. Grant Murphy proved a very capable replacement. Her charming and unaffected voice perfectly suited “Das himmlische Leben” (The Heavenly Life), the disarmingly innocent song that is the finale of the symphony. As with “Neruda Songs”, the work was greeted by rapt silence at the close before the audience began applauding.

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