Another brick in the tower
Let me begin this review by quoting, at some length, Robert Levine at ClassicsToday.com:
When I hear a new (or new to me) Lorraine Hunt Lieberson recording, my thoughts tend to run in the same direction. I, though, tend to personalize it: "Do I like this because it's that good, or do I like it because of the tragic context?" Often as not, I tend to think her recordings were just that good. It is, increasingly, a rare thing when singers can really internalize and project the text, and - at the same time - have a gorgeous (luminous and full, in her case) voice. Her Urlicht, from Michael Tilson Thomas' 2004 Mahler 2nd, is a prime example of this: beautifully sung and convincingly interpreted. Another is the recently released Wigmore Hall recital (11/30/1998), recorded by the BBC, with Roger Vignoles on the piano.
There's always the fear of oversentimentalizing an artist who gave a great deal of pleasure and died young: just take a look at how the English have beatified the plum-voiced Kathleen Ferrier. But in the case of the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, each newly discovered recording simply stabilizes her place in the pantheon of great singers.
The disc opens with Mahler's Rückert-Lieder (1905). Of all Mahler's Lieder, I have the easiest time with the five settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert (originally released with two Wunderhorn settings). I like the Kindertotenlieder, particularly Christa Ludwig's 1975 collaboration with Herbert von Karajan, but I find them somewhat more daunting than the Rückert-Lieder. Hunt Lieberson chooses an interesting order for the songs, putting "Um Mitternacht" and "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" together at the end, instead of opening the cycle with the latter and closing it with the former (like Bernstein and Von Karajan do). That tends to put the emotional climax in "Um Mitternacht" with "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" being a desolate coda. It is an interesting choice, and one with which I do not immediately disagree.
As to the music, Hunt Lieberson shows herself to be a fine Lieder interpreter. She uses the piano versions by Mahler, so she is a bit more on her own, without orchestration to cover up any of her rough spots. Her tone is beautiful, definitely so, but that's not the amazing thing. She turns these pieces into intimate confessions, prefiguring her justifiably famous Ich habe genug, and seems to internalize these works in such a way that she then connects with the audience. She does not tell Mahler's (and Rückert's) story - she makes it her own and then tells it. Really astonishing. Let me put it like this: a reference recording for the chamber Lieder (i.e., pure Lieder) version of the Rückert-Lieder has sat in the BBC vaults since 1998. It might not be to everyone's taste, but I think everyone would agree that it is a powerful dramatic and musical statement. I might say, furthermore, that if she weren't a commanding and in-control technical musician, that she would fall well short of the mark. By the same token, it would be an empty gesture were she not such a superb actor and interpreter.
There is some Handel and a large chunk of her husband's (Peter Lieberson) work. I am not familiar enough with those oeuvres to make a solid judgment, beyond saying that she brings the same intensity, vocal beauty, and intelligence to those works (and the encores) that she does to the Mahler. Her selection, which she introduces in concert, from Ashoka's Dream is particularly powerful. This is a disc I bought for the Rückert-Lieder, but she makes it worth the money for the rest of it. I'm now inclined to get her recording of Lieberson's Neruda Songs from this performance.
Let me sum up this way: a recording like this, released early in an artist's career, would propel them to some degree of stardom (and the astonishment of critics). Released at this point, it is another brick in a tower that has been increased with several impressive new releases. With records like these being released, her loss only becomes more tragic.
My only gripe is the distant recording, like Mr. Levine. As intimate and deeply personal as these interpretations are, the slightly far-away (not bad, but you can tell) recording doesn't quite do them justice. These are Lieder performances, not a staging of Alexander Nevsky. It's OK to mike them a bit closer, though this isn't the first such disc that has made that mistake. Oh, well, I'd rather have the performances in less-than-ideal sound than not at all.