When Lorraine Hunt Lieberson died on 3 July 2006 at the age of fifty-two, the tragedy was not only a human one: the music world lost one of its most special, unique talents.
The American mezzo-soprano had a voice of sublime richness which extended through every register; combined with clarity of diction and an ability to infuse everything she sang with a sincerity of emotion, this made for an ideal package for the singer who was voted Vocalist of the Year in 2001 by Musical America and Outstanding Artist of the Year 2003 by The Guardian.
This wonderful new disc from Avie Records combines three live recordings from the Emmanuel Music Archive in Boston, where Lieberson frequently joined forces with the Orchestra of Emmanuel Music and late conductor Craig Smith, who died last year and appears on fourteen of the fifteen tracks here. Sandwiched between two highlights from Bach Cantatas (taken from the orchestra's Sunday Bach Cantata Series) are a substantial selection of Lieberson's performances of Dejanira's arias from Handel's Hercules. The mezzo never recorded any of this music elsewhere, and we're lucky that these performances were documented at all, let alone in such outstanding sound.
Of the two Bach tracks, the final one is perhaps marginally finer, though both feature wonderful vocals. 'Wie fürchtsam wankten meine Schritte' from Cantata BWV 33 is an incredibly affecting alto aria whose steady pizzicato accompaniment in the lower strings provides the ideal backdrop to Lieberson's poised rendition of the vocal line. Nevertheless, 'Kommt ihr angefochtnen Sünder' from Cantata BWV 30 is catching for the way in which Lieberson produces such a wonderful spin at the top of the voice, and the interweaving of the vocal and instrumental lines is mesmerising in Smith's reading.
For me, though, the Handel selections are the reason for buying the disc. Lieberson's portrayal of Irene in Theodora at Glyndebourne brought her to new prominence in this country, and she is in excellent voice in these arias and duet, recorded in 1999. Craig Smith's programme note points towards the reasons why Hercules is so remarkable in Handel's already astounding output. After setting portentous Old Testament subjects such as Saul and Samson, the decision to use a Sophocles play was less obvious. But as Smith says, Hercules evokes 'a world remarkably modern in its psychology and motivation'.
These qualities make them ideal material for Lieberson, whose sensuality of tone and psychological insight are outstanding. The piercing distress of 'When beauty sorrow's liv'ry wears', augmented by excellent violin solos from Danielle Maddon and Lena Wong, or the melancholy line of 'Cease, ruler of the day, to rise', or the vigorously-executed vengeance aria 'Resign thy club and lion's spoils', with its dramatic accents, all provide the perfect marriage of composer and performer. But the knock-out here is Dejanira's Mad Scene, 'Where shall I fly? Where hide this guilty head?'. Lieberson's dramatic instinct comes through here more than ever, her technical security allowing her to employ her natural musicianship to illuminate the character's wrenching delusion. It caps a brilliant, must-have disc for the summer months.