Hannu Lintu Conducts Lieberson

LIEBERSON: The Six Realms. Songs of Love and Sorrow* / Anssi Karttunen, cel; *Gerald Finley, bar; Finnish Radio Symphony Orch.; Hannu Lintu, cond / Ondine OCD 1356-2 (*live, Helsinki December 2019)

Peter Lieberson, the son of Columbia Records president Goddard Lieberson, studied composition with Charles Wuorinen and Milton Babbitt and Vajrayana Buddhism with Chögyam Trunpa, later moving to Boston where he became co-director of Shambhala Training, a meditation and cultural center, He died in 2011.

The Six Realms, which is a sort of cello concerto, opens with music written in the preferred academic style of the time (1990s), which is edgy and atonal but not serial music. The score is logical and coherent if not particularly audience-friendly. In the liner notes, Lieberson is quoted as saying that this piece was written by the request of Yo-Yo Ma, and is based on the six realms described in Tibetan Buddhism: the God realm, the jealous God realm, the human realm, the animal realm, the hungry ghost realm and the hell realm. The “animal realm” is the liveliest but also the edgiest and most violent, depicting the animal nature in music. Lieberson was obviously a master at decompartmentalizing the orchestra, breaking down the sections and reconstructing them in his own image. Our soloist here, cellist Anssi Karttunen, had a brief but powerful working relationship with Lieberson but did not get to play The Six Realms until after his death.

The Songs of Love and Sorrow were commissioned by conductor James Levine for Lieberson’s wife at the time, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, but before he could write then his wife died of breast cancer and a year later he, too, was diagnosed with cancer (lymphoma). He began by re-reading Pablo Neruda’s Love Sonnets and decided to write “a cycle of farewell songs as a memorial to Lorraine.” Interestingly, our singer on this recording, baritone Gerald Finley, worked with Lieberson during the premiere of these songs with the Boston Symphony in 2010. Finley says that “he wanted these Neruda songs to be as personal to me as they were for him.” The music, begin an accompaniment to a vocalist, is entirely different from The Six Realms. Here it is closer to the modern French school than to the German, very lyrical with sweeping melodic lines for the singer and equally lyrical lines for the cello obbligato. The tonality, though often shifting, is also much more tonal and thus more accessible to the average listener. My sole complaint is that Finley’s Spanish pronunciation is pretty poor, as if he learned each word by the see-say method without a language coach. I am far from being a linguist—I have a mental block for learning foreign languages—but I can pronounce the words better than this.

But oh, what singing! Despite being 59 years old at the time of performance, Finley retains the solid timbre and beautiful tone he has displayed in the world’s opera houses and concert stages for decades. He is also an expressive singer in his own subtle way; he knows how to interpret words and make them interesting to the listener. Nowhere is this more evident than in the third song, “Cantas y a sol a cielo con tu canto” or “You sing to the sky and the sun with your song, you thresh the day’s grain.” Overall, it is a slow song cycle, and one can tell that Lieberson’s love for his ex-wife was tinged with melancholy. One might almost describe it as a modern-day Kindertotenlieder (particularly evident, to me, in the last song).

All told, then, this is a splendid representation of Lieberson’s music, and throughout these pieces Lintu conducts with a real love and feeling for every phrase.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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