Mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson made relatively few studio recordings, but particularly since her death in 2006, more and more live recordings of recitals have been surfacing. This album draws on two live performances with the Boston-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra led by Nicholas McGegan, one from 1991 and one from 1995. Hunt Lieberson had the kind of voice, musicianship, and presence that left critics groping for superlatives, but in his program notes for this recording, Stephen Wadsworth did a good job encapsulating her unique qualities, her "…music-making of thrilling passion yet absolute freedom… singing of shape-shifting colors and sounds which draw word and note, melody and harmony into a darkly tinged, heat-seeking truth."
The inclusion of Berlioz's Les Nuits d'été makes this release particularly valuable because the 19th century was a segment of the repertoire in which Hunt Lieberson was not frequently engaged. The warmth and focus of her interpretation make it clear that she would have as easily excelled in this repertoire, had she chosen it, as she did in music of the Baroque and Contemporary eras. Berlioz was a composer with whom she had a special affinity; two of her very few 19th century operatic roles were Dido in Les Troyens and Béatrice in Béatrice et Bénédict. Her voice is sensuous and richly colored, with a shimmering luminescence, and she brings her typically penetrating musical and psychological integrity to each of the songs in the cycle. "Villanelle" practically shivers with energy, and the melting loveliness of "Le Spectre de la rose" is intoxicating. Handel was the composer with whom Hunt Lieberson was most closely associated and these arias are evidence of her absolute mastery of his style and her uncanny ability to invest his characters with indelible individuality. In "L'angue offeso mai riposa," from Giulio Cesare, she conveys Sesto's swerving dangerously out of control with alarming fury and abandon. At the other end of the expressive spectrum is the aching tenderness she brings to "Vieni, o figlio, e mi consola," from Ottone. The performances by Nicholas McGegan and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra are world class in their nuanced subtlety and attention to period detail. The players use original instruments or reproductions, and the wind sound, particularly in the Berlioz, is revelatory; his music is normally played using modern instruments, but these are the wind sounds the composer would have known and written for. The audio fidelity is excellent for live recordings, immediate and life-like with a warm, finely detailed ambience. There is some stage and audience noise, but it's at a low level and rarely intrusive. In the Handel selections, tape bleed-through is occasionally evident in quieter passages, and some distant traffic noise is audible.