Valse triste, Op.44/1
Songs of Love and Sorrow [World premiere performances]
Symphony No.9 in C, D944 (Great)
Gerald Finley (baritone)
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski
Reviewed: 27 March, 2010
Venue: Boston Symphony Hall
Following the 2005 Boston premiere of “Neruda Songs”, a cycle written by Peter Lieberson for his wife, the renowned mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the Boston Symphony commissioned another work from the composer. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson died in July 2006 from breast cancer, and shortly afterward the composer himself was diagnosed with cancer. But his health improved and as he was recovering he fell in love again and re-married. The follow-up BSO commission, which was originally to be a series of farewell songs as a memorial to his first wife, became “Songs of Love and Sorrow”. Like “Neruda Songs”, this latest work was inspired the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. But whereas each of the five setting in the earlier piece reflected, in Lieberson’s words, “a different face in love’s mirror”, the new piece is “about the fullness of all life’s experiences” and deals with a wider range of emotions.
“Songs of Love and Sorrow” is about 25 minutes long and consists of five sonnets from Neruda’s “Cien sonetos de amor”, the 1959 volume dedicated to Maltilde Urrutia, the poet’s long-time partner. Scored for baritone and orchestra, the song-cycle had its world premiere two days before this, the third performance of four. Music Director James Levine was scheduled to conduct, but when the BSO announced that he had to withdraw, as well as all his remaining concerts of the BSO season due to ongoing back problems, Jayce Ogren, former assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, agreed to fill in on very short notice.
“Songs of Love and Sorrow” is a worthy companion piece to its predecessor. The imagery in Neruda’s poems is earthy and erotic, with recurrent geographic and meteorological references. For example, the first, ‘Des las estrellas’ (Of all the stars), moves from those “drenched in various rivers and mists” through green seas and water-drops to the final verse, dwelling dwells on the body of the lover: “I wanted your hair, all for myself. / From all the graces my homeland offered / I chose only your savage heart.”
This first song begins with the warm sound of the cellos, but quickly expands to other sections of the orchestra to introduce motifs and themes that return at pivotal moments. The second song, beginning with the line “Plena mujer, manzana carnal, luna caliente” (Full woman, flesh-apple, hot moon), is the most erotic and lyrical in the whole set. Occasionally, Lieberson takes liberties with Neruda’s texts, repeating certain phrases to heighten the emotional impact and expand the contours of his atmospheric and frequently understated musical accompaniment. The cycle reaches its greatest emotional pitch in the final song, ‘Amor mio’ (My love), when in the last verse the baritone sings “I don’t know who it is who lives or dies, / who rests or wakes / but it is your heart that distributes all the graces of the daybreak, in my breast.”
From the moment Gerald Finley sang his first line, it was obvious this was going to be a distinguished performance. He proved a wonderfully sensitive interpreter of Neruda’s texts, shading his voice to every nuance of the poet’s words. His fluid and resonant lyric baritone clearly brought out the wide-ranging, sometimes conflicting emotions of Lieberson’s music without ever resorting to mannerism. Making his Symphony Hall debut with these concerts, Jayce Ogren did an impressive job with Lieberson’s score as he led the BSO musicians with alertness and sensitivity.
The evening opened with Sibelius’s Finlandia and Valse triste (substituted for the previously scheduled Jeux by Debussy). Ogren’s reading of Finlandia reached a less than desirable level of excitement, but his elegant account of the wistful Valse was rendered with charm and longing.
A somewhat disjointed account of Schubert’s ‘Great C major’ Symphony ended the program. But stepping in on such short notice and with a major premiere to focus on, on the whole Ogren acquitted himself well.
- This performance preceded by ones on March 25 & 26 and followed by one on March 30
- Boston Symphony Orchestra