The highlight of this CD is the singing by the late, beloved mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (1954 -2006) in John Harbison's "North and South: Six Poems of Elizabeth Bishop". Ms. Lieberson was awarded a posthumous Grammy in 2007 for her performance of her husband's "Rilke Songs" accompanied by pianist Peter Serkin. This CD offers the opportunity to hear her in the works of another leading American composer, John Harbison. Shortly before her death, Harbison said of Ms. Lieberson that "She gives so much of her inner soul, that that's what she owes the public."
Harbison (b. 1938) writes in a variety of genres. He is best-known for larger-scale works, including operas, symphonies and choral pieces, and he received the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for his "The Flight into Egypt." Harbison's recent music is tonal, tightly constructed, and lucid. Earlier in his career, he frequently used atonality.
This CD of Harbison's chamber music includes four short works with Ms. Lieberson's voice gracing only the opening selection. Harbison's "North and South" consists of two books of three poems set for singer and an accompaning septet of English horn, clarinet, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and double bass. Each set of three opens with a poem titled "Ballad for Billie." Ms Lieberson accentuates the blusey feel of these works as in the first she moans Bishop's line "LeRoy just how much are we owing" to which LeRoy responds "Darling, when I earns I spends." In the second, Billie observes, as her lover goes from worman to woman, "The time has come to call a halt ... I'm going to go and take the bus/ and find someone monogamous."
In an article in the New Yorker written after her death, Alex Ross stated that Ms. Lieberson "broke through the facade of cool professionalism that too often prevails in the classical world, showing the kind of unchecked fervor that is more often associated with the greatest pop, jazz and gospel singers. She was often compared to Maria Callas, but she might have been a shade closer to Mahalia Jackson." Ross' observations describe well Ms. Lieberson's performances of the "Ballads for Billie" as well as for the four other settings of intimate poetry by Elizabeth Bishop that constitute this cycle.
I found most of the rest of this CD somewhat cool, detached, and anticlimactic. The best of it, I think, was Harbison's setting of four poems of Goethe, together with an instrumental interlude, in a 1975 work titled "Book of Hours and Seasons" performed by Mezzo-soprano Emily Lodine to the accompaniment of flute, cello, and piano. This music is more complex and harmonically challenging than that of the remaining works on the CD, and I got involved with it, particularly with the final song "Um Mitternacht". I enjoyed Ms. Lodine's singing.
Harbison's 2002 composition "Six American Painters" is an instrumental work for flute, violin, viola, and cello consisting of six short impressions of Bingham, Eakins, Heade, Homer, Hoffman, and Diebenkorn. The flute has the lead in most of this work, and the playing is, indeed, impeccable. But I found the music uncharacterized and remote and was mostly left unmoved. The work didn't differentiate for me the styles of the different artists it was intended to celebrate.
The final work on the CD in "The Three Wise Men" written in 1988 and premiered on television in that year. The work consists of a spoken narrative from the Gospel of Matthew together with a brass chorale in which the tuba gets a great deal of attention. As a celebratory, public piece, this work is fine for what it is. But I found it came across blandly on a recording, even though it was well performed.
I was glad to have the opportunity to hear John Harbison's work in intimate settings. But the major attraction of this CD is overwhelmingly the singing of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and secondarily the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop.