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Theofandis: Symphony No. 1 & Lieberson: Neruda Songs
05 Nov 2011

Lieberson’s Neruda Songs and Theofandis’s Symphony No. 1

In 2006 classical music lost one of its great singers — American mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, taken at the height of her career.

Christopher Theofandis: Symphony No. 1; Peter Lieberson: Neruda Songs

Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-soprano. Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Conductor: Robert Spano.

ASO Media CD-1002 [CD]

$16.99  Click to buy

Before she had to stop performing as the cancer that took her life progressed, she had the opportunity to debut a major piece by her husband, the composer Peter Lieberson. As a sort of love offering to his wife, composer Lieberson set a series of 5 poems by Pablo Neruda for mezzo and orchestra, and titled the group “Neruda Songs.” Sadly, Peter Lieberson himself succumbed to cancer in April 2011, and so the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has dedicated to him its new release (on the orchestra’s own label) of “Neruda Songs,” as well as the first symphony of the American composer Christopher Theofanidis.

Kelley O’Connor takes on the formidable task of singing “Neruda Songs” — formidable mostly because of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s storied reputation and the emotional context of a composition written for her by her husband, and which Hunt Lieberson only sang a few times before her death. The actual vocal lines of the five poem settings don’t pose much challenge to Ms. O’Connor’s substantial, handsome mezzo instrument. Each of the settings runs to at least 5 minutes, so that the entire performance reaches over 30 minutes in length. Composer Lieberson’s textures are tastefully adorned with Latinate touches, and the vocal line is consistently supported. Neruda’s poems cover a range of moods within their forms, rather like lengthy paragraphs. Lieberson finds some variety, then, within each piece; overall, however, a mood of contrasting sensuality and melancholy dominates. Lieberson might have considered that some have complained that the “Les nuits d’été” of Berlioz, after the energetic opening piece, settles down into an almost claustrophobic monochromatic texture. Not much really distinguishes one Lieberson setting of a Neruda poem from another. Certainly more melodic distinctiveness would be appreciated. Some more individual coloring from Ms. O'Connor would have been of benefit as well. Nevertheless, there is beauty here, and that increasingly rare quality makes “Neruda Songs” special.

As for the disc's opening tracks of the four movements of Christopher Theofandis’s Symphony No. 1, just imagine an impeccably performed and recorded score to a mid-century documentary on American industrial and business might. The excited, quick figures might accompany scenes of busy pedestrian traffic or speedy assembly lines. Occasional dark textures would suggest the ongoing tensions below the surface of the bustling, active pursuit of the American dream. The music would be interesting enough to bring context and meaning to the images, yet not so distinctive as to draw too much attention to itself. But this is not a documentary score - it’s a symphony. By the end of its thirty minutes, one may feel as if hurried along by an over-excited conductor to a not particularly interesting destination.

Speaking of conductors, Robert Spano is a fine one, and his Atlanta Symphony Orchestra sounds fantastic. However, for those most interested in “Neruda Songs,” the recording with Hunt Lieberson singing would be the way to go.

Chris Mullins

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