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Peter LIEBERSON (1946-2011)
The Six Realms (2000) [22:45]
Songs of Love and Sorrow (2010) [25:59]
Anssi Karttunen (cello)
Gerald Finley (bass-baritone)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu
rec. December 2019, Helsinki Music Centre, Finland.
Spanish texts & English translations included
ONDINE ODE1356-2 [49:07]

I first encountered the music of Peter Lieberson when I was bowled over by his extraordinary, achingly beautiful Neruda Songs which he wrote for his wife, the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in 2005. We are fortunate indeed to have her live recording of the songs, captured just a few months before her untimely death (review). Subsequently, after reading the enthusiastic review by my colleague Leslie Wright, I acquired another CD of three Lieberson works. This includes a recording, possibly the work’s first, of The Six Realms.

It’s interesting to note that Anssi Karttunen’s performance of The Six Realms shaves over four minutes off the timing in that earlier Bridge recording on which Michaela Fukacova is partnered by the Odense Symphony Orchestra and Justin Brown. The Fukacova performance takes longer in all six sections of the work than Karttunen does. I must say that I never felt that the music was being rushed in the new recording and whilst I agree with my colleague that the Fukacova/Brown reading is a fine one, I very much admire the urgency in this newcomer.

According to the composer’s own programme note, The Six Realms was composed at the request of Yo-Yo Ma as part of his Silk Road Project. Lieberson had been a longstanding practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism and the title of his piece refers to the six realms which, in Buddhism, portray the human condition. The work is, in essence, a concerto for amplified cello and orchestra in which the large orchestra plays a highly important role. The score is cast in six sections, played continuously. These sections don’t quite align with the realms: there’s an introduction followed by four sections, each bearing the title of one realm; the final section combines the remaining two realms.

The introduction, entitled ‘The Sorrow of the World’ is a powerfully tense lament which is very strongly projected in this performance. Next comes ‘The Hell Realm’. After the solo instrument has bridged the way into this section, the Hell Realm is depicted mainly with angular, biting music which, Lieberson tells us, reflects the heat of anger. In this section there’s a good deal of particularly potent writing for the brass. ‘The Hungry Ghost Realm’ reflects that side of the human nature that is never satisfied, always wanting more. Lieberson portrays this through sad, regretful music, largely scored for the solo cello accompanied by strings. The music is doleful and much of the cello part is very plaintive; Karttunen plays it with intense feeling. Then comes a change of mood in ‘The Animal Realm’. This is a galumphing scherzo episode in which the orchestra plays a key role – the tuba and untuned percussion feature prominently at times. Lintu and his orchestra are really incisive hereabouts. In complete contrast is ‘The Human Realm’, which is largely devoted to music for the solo cello alone. Such accompaniment as there is from time to time is very sparse. By relying on the soloist in this fashion Lieberson explains that he’s drawing attention to the potential for humans to become isolated. In the final section, ‘The God Realm and the Jealous God Realm’, these two realms are pitted against each other. That doesn’t happen immediately because proceedings open with the cellist playing a busy extended solo over a very long sustained orchestral chord. After this, the two competing realms collide in mainly orchestral music of huge energy. However, Lieberson brings the work full circle by revisiting, quietly, the music of the lament with which the work began. Thus, The Six Realms ends softly, though to my ears the conclusion is one of uneasy calm.

The Six Realms is a powerful and fascinating score. It’s challenging for the listener but always accessible. In this performance Anssi Karttunen plays with great virtuosity and assurance. He receives superb support from Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. The terrific recording allows the listener to appreciate to the full the inventive scoring of this work.

I referred earlier to Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs. That set of five outstandingly eloquent songs has a strong relationship with Songs of Love and Sorrow. As Peter Lieberson relates in his notes, he was asked by James Levine and the Boston Symphony to write a second work for Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. However, she died in 2006 and not long after that he himself was diagnosed with cancer. In an interval between treatments, though, he began to contemplate a set of farewell songs as a tribute to his late wife. He turned once more to the poetry of Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) and specifically to Neruda’s Cien Sonetos de Amor which had been the source for the first set of songs. He resolved to make settings for baritone, with Gerald Finley specifically in mind. Somehow, amid severe illness and the treatments he received, Peter Lieberson found the will and the strength to set five more of Neruda’s sonnets and Gerald Finley premiered them in 2010, benefitting from the opportunity to work on them with the composer. As far as I know, this is the first recording of the songs; it was made live in Helsinki in December 2019.

Neruda’s poems are love songs which use very frank, sometimes erotic imagery. I believe he addressed them to his own beloved, Matilde Urruitia. Lieberson sets them in the original Spanish. I should say at once that not only does the music seem to fit Gerald Finley’s voice like a glove but also his timbre, which puts me in mind of burnished, polished dark wood, is wonderfully suited to the Spanish language.

The first poem, Sonnet XLVI (‘De las estrellas que admiré…’) is prefaced by an orchestral introduction that is rich in promise, the music slow and pensive. When the singer begins, his music consists of long, eloquent vocal lines, intensely melodic. Underneath the vocal line is a wonderful, subtly tinged orchestral canvass. We find the sensuality of Neruda’s words echoed perfectly, both in Lieberson’s music and in Finley’s singing. Then comes Sonata XII (‘Plena mujer, manzana carnal, luna caliente…’) Here, the imagery is erotic and Finley delivers the passionate vocal line with ardour.

The central song is Sonnet LII (‘Cantas y a sol y a cielo con tu canto…’) Here, the poet finds reminiscences of his beloved in the things of nature around him and Lieberson’s music is full of heat and colour. In the second half of the sonnet, however, Neruda focuses directly on his beloved and Lieberson responds with music that is calmer and yet rapturous. In Sonnet LXIX (‘Tal vez no ser es ser sin que tú seas…’) the poet longs for his absent lover. His words, and Lieberson’s rich, sensuous music, are full of the melancholy of separation. But then in the concluding lines Neruda speaks of the joy of knowing that he and his love are together, if only in spirit; here, the music is suitably warm.

As with the earlier Neruda Songs, I feel that Peter Lieberson leaves the best till last. Sonnet LXXXII (‘Amor mío al cerrar esta puerta nocturna…’) is a nocturnal farewell. In the first few bars a sultry horn solo powerfully suggests dark skies and a warm night. The music is beautiful, cast in a languorous, gently melancholic vein. Here, Finley is at his most communicative and subtle, singing with velvet tone and great yet unforced expression. The orchestra gently cradles his voice in a wonderfully imagined texture. It’s a memorable end to a very fine set of songs.

I hope and expect that other singers will take up Songs of Love and Sorrow; it may have happened already. However, any other baritone essaying these songs has a formidable exemplar in Gerald Finley. He not only sings and communicates these songs superbly, he owns them. Lieberson’s settings are distinguished throughout by wonderfully smooth and expressive melodic lines; Finley’s gloriously even tone and ability to spin a seamless line mean that he’s an ideal interpreter of such music. In Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra he has ideal collaborators. The orchestral accompaniment is rich, inventive and full of illustrative detail. The FRSO plays with great finesse and empathy while Lintu is obviously fully attuned to the music. It’s a definitive performance from all concerned.

This is a superb disc. Both works are important and impressive scores and they are given well-nigh ideal performances here. Ondine present the music in magnificent sound. There’s all the impact you could wish for in The Six Realms, while the sophisticated palette of Songs of Love and Sorrow is beautifully reproduced. Both recordings are splendidly detailed. The documentation is first rate. Ondine offer programme notes on both works by the composer himself and also short essays by both soloists on their experiences of the composer and the works concerned.

You may raise an eyebrow at the short playing time of this disc. I would urge you not to do so, but rather to reflect that a ticket to hear either of these works just once in concert would cost you at least as much as the price of this CD. And if you buy the disc, you’ll have the chance to become familiar with these rewarding scores through repeated listening.

John Quinn

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