The UK premiere of the ‘Neruda Songs’

When news broke of the death from cancer of American mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, in July 2006 at the age of 52, critics and audiences mourned the loss not simply of one of the world’s finest singers but of an extraordinary artist.

Obituaries compared her to performers as diverse as Maria Callas and Mahalia Jackson (a somewhat oblique way of describing her unique artistic spirit) and endlessly revisited the highlights of her career: a central involvement in Peter Sellars’ groundbreaking productions of Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Theodora, deeply affecting performances of Bach cantatas, and her creation of new roles for contemporary composers, including Kaija Saariaho and John Harbison.

Above all, however, discussion returned to the Neruda Songs, a cycle written for the singer by her husband, Peter Lieberson, that she premiered, recorded and toured in the US just months before her death. Inevitably, this setting of five love sonnets by the 20th-century Chilean poet Pablo Neruda has acquired a new poignancy since Hunt Lieberson’s death but its importance as a new composition was recognised from the start, and its success has proven both critical (winning a Grawemeyer and a Grammy award) and popular. After a planned performance at last year’s Spitalfields Winter Festival was cancelled due to spending cuts, the Neruda Songs will finally receive their UK premiere next week with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and British mezzo Sarah Connolly as soloist.

Throughout much of his early to mid-career, Lieberson was best known for his instrumental compositions. In 1997, however, he was looking to cast his first opera, Ashoka’s Dream, and heard a recording of the then Lorraine Hunt singing “Dido’s Lament”.

“I thought, ‘My God, who is this person?’ It was a real jolt, there was a real force coming through, and if I had to describe it, I would say it was a spiritual force.”

They fell in love almost before meeting and throughout their nine years together her voice inspired some of Lieberson’s finest music. There is something Straussian about the strong, melodic vocal line in Neruda Songs and, with hindsight, one immediately thinks of the elegiac Four Last Songs, but the score also carries hints of jazz and a South American flavour.

Lieberson had been thinking about an orchestral commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra when he chanced upon a volume of Neruda’s poetry at Albuquerque airport. “I thought I was a literate person but I hadn’t read much Neruda, if at all, and I was immediately struck by the passion and the musicality of his poetry,” he says. “It wasn’t romantic love, per se, it was earthly love. I bought the copy and Lorraine and I would read them to each other.” He proposed a song cycle and the commission was honoured and then later enhanced by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. When he came to write the pieces his wife had already been diagnosed with cancer, and the five selected sonnets span a powerful emotional arc from the ecstasy of first love to the fear of separation and the agony of loss.

Connolly was an obvious choice as soloist for the UK premiere: although their voices are very distinctive she, like Hunt Lieberson, is known for her poise and intelligence, and the almost frightening intensity she can bring to live performances. In 2007 she sang the alto role intended for Hunt Lieberson in Glyndebourne’s controversial staging of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. “That was awful. I think all singers who have stood in for her have felt like they shouldn’t be there,” says Connolly. But apart from feeling great sadness, she is undaunted by the precedent that was set for Neruda Songs. “I’m about to record Britten’s Phaedra, and I know that it was written for Dame Janet Baker but you’ve got to get over that, you’ve always got to find your own approach.”

A fluent Spanish speaker, and an admirer of Neruda’s poetry, Connolly is grateful for the opportunity to sing these songs. “I’ve been reading Neruda’s poems for years, so I know his obsession with the moon and the elements, and his extraordinary use of language and colour, and they have been beautifully illustrated by Peter’s orchestration. It’s delightful, never too heavy, too consuming.”

Apart from notable appearances at Glyndebourne and the Wigmore Hall Hunt Lieberson’s performances in the UK, and the rest of Europe, were rare and her talent was all too often overlooked. “I remember going into a very famous music shop in Germany when these songs had been nominated for a Grammy and couldn’t find her CD anywhere,” Connolly says. “They had Villazón’s and Netrebko’s and everyone else’s, so I went up to the manager and said, ‘Excuse me, where is Lorraine’s Neruda Songs recording?’ and when he said, ‘Oh, we don’t have it,’ I absolutely let rip. That was long before I was asked to sing them so it was quite prophetic.”

Earlier this year Lieberson completed a new song cycle for baritone titled Songs of Love and Sorrow, which was premiered at the Boston Symphony Hall last March by Gerald Finley. It was written as a companion piece to Neruda Songs but addresses the four years of Lieberson’s life since his wife’s death: not simply the awful grief, but his own battle with cancer and unexpectedly falling in love again. “It was going to be In Memoriam but it didn’t feel right somehow so, just as Lorraine always expanded, so the cycle expanded.”

Peter Lieberson’s ‘Neruda Songs’ receive their UK premiere at the Barbican, London, on October 1

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