Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concerto no. 4, BWV 1049 – Cantata “Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut,” BWV 199
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo soprano), Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Jeffrey Kahane (music director)
Recorded in Royce Hall, Los Angeles (September 2003 & November 2011) – 42’05
Yarlung Records 96298 – Booklet essays in English and texts/translations in German/English
Lorraine - her name adorns the album cover in large print. Above it is the smiling face of a familiar-looking woman. The whites, grays, and blacks form a portrait of a woman happy and care-free. This photo, like other personal pictures in this album’s booklet, offer an intimate look at Lorraine Hunt Lieberson the woman, detached from Lorraine Hunt Lieberson the legend. It is a touching look at Ms. Lieberson whose youthful smile belies her tragic fate and forces the viewer to confront her early passing. Not only was Lorraine Hunt Lieberson one of the greatest artists of our time, a tragic victim of breast cancer at the age of 52, she was a seeker of happiness, peace, and truth in expression personally and professionally. This release, Lieberson’s portion of which was recorded nearly 10 years ago, seeks to pay tribute to the artist and her immortal legacy.
Devotees of Ms. Lieberson will be familiar with her studio recording of this Bach cantata. For many, it is a desert island disc. Released around the same time as this concert was performed, it is interesting to hear the juxtaposition of the two performances. The immediate conclusion is that both are equally valuable documents of Lieberson’s artistry. The studio recording is practically perfect in every way. Craig Smith’s group “The Orchestra of Emmanuel Music” is airy, perfectly blended and judged, capped off by a luxurious oboe solo. The performance here, is visceral, and, at times, uncomfortably haunting. To be sure, it is not perfect. Some of her exposed high notes don’t have the perfect grace that the studio recording has, and her Boston collaborators are more polished. But this recording from the LACO is completely mesmerizing where the Boston one isn’t.
Ms. Lieberson catapults herself, and the listener, into a 30 minute journey through one of Bach’s most dramatically searing cantatas. The first words, “Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut,” are potent and blazing in an unmistakable cry of despair. From the beginning, it is clear that this performance is an event. The tension of the auditorium is palpable and the performers are relentless. The pause before the final phrase in the aria “Tief gebückt un voller Reue” seems an eternity. Captured in the moment, it is perfectly judged and a touching gesture of humility.
Ms. Lieberson is captured here in wonderful voice. Her unmistakable mezzo-soprano is rich, complex, yet so intimately corralled to be a vehicle for the music. Her solo rendition of the chorale is clearly differentiated in vocal color and timbre. Her transformation from despair to joy throughout the piece is masterful and clearly intentioned.
The LACO are wonderful collaborators, playing with sensitivity and measured propulsion. Ends of phrases aren’t perfectly executed throughout the ensemble, but the playing is luxurious with appropriately lean tone. Allan Vogel provides an impressive oboe solo in the first aria, “Stumme Seufzer, stille Klagen.” While not sounding completely effortless, it is perfectly in tune and played with a beautifully round tone. The paired piece on this disc, which opens it, is Bach’s fourth Brandenburg Concerto. Captured some eight years after the cantata, it is superbly played. For my taste, however, the LACO could manage to put more zest and dynamic contrast into the performance as phrases tend to ease to their conclusions and reiterations tend to stay somewhat static.
Undoubtedly, the draw for most will be this live performance of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. You will not be disappointed. This recording is to be cherished for her incomparably committed reading of one of her signature Bach interpretations. While not as perfect, musically and aurally, as her studio recording, it outshines it dramatically. The recorded sound is wonderfully vivid and captured with care. In some ways, hearing this recording some 7 years after Ms. Lieberson’s death is a priceless gift. Ms. Lieberson’s ability to communicate the music is undiminished in her passing and the capturing of it here is a noble celebration of her legacy. To hear this recording is to hear Lorraine singing directly to you and for that, she, and the music she so loved, could never be forgotten.
Matthew Richard Martinez