So you want to write a love song? If you’re an earnest singer-songwriter, it’s a straightforward-enough job: Grab a guitar, meditate on the object of your desire, and you’re in business. But if you’re an erudite composer with twelve-tone baggage on your back and a topflight orchestra at your disposal, and you are married to one of the finest mezzo-sopranos of the age, the task is more daunting. For one thing, tenderness and intimate longing are rare in today’s concert music. It’s not that contemporary symphonists lack expressivity—I’ve heard new works brimming with irony, anger, obsessive fervor, excitement, grief, ethereal bliss, even wit and charm. But among the serious set, sentiment carries a stigma, which makes the love song a problematic genre. And since so few composers have tackled it in recent decades, it’s also full of possibility.
Peter Lieberson waited a long time to write Neruda Songs, the set of five glimmering sonnets that Kelley O’Connor recently performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. He devoted the better part of his career to composing ambitious works that shudder with rhythmic energy, churning harmonies, and alarming philosophical explosions—unquiet stuff for a Zen Buddhist. He married the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt, who brought a controlled vehemence to every phrase she sang and taught her husband how to write for the voice. In 2005, his last chance had come to apply that skill to love songs: She suffered a relapse of cancer and died the following year.
The result reminds me of a landscape by Poussin, bristling with detail and drama, yet mantled in a consistent mood. On an expanse of melancholy tenderness, Lieberson scatters brushstrokes of brassy dissonance, half-finished phrases, tremors and tremolos that flare and fade, as if the orchestra were dipping and dodging to follow the emotional contours of the vocal line. He hasn’t abandoned the thickets of his earlier style so much as adapted them to new terrain. The second of the five songs begins with one of those polychrome, staccato, anxiously rising lines so beloved by expressionistic modernists. Piano and bassoon hand off to muted trumpet and then to staccato winds, and in those few crowded seconds, angst is in the air. But then the voice comes in with a series of clarion calls to love. Pablo Neruda didn’t put exclamation marks after each repeated amor when he wrote these poems, but Lieberson does, just as he festoons the word subieron (“they climbed”) with a vocal flourish. The verse imagines love-struck clouds storming a celestial tower “like triumphant washerwomen,” and the score captures the upward rush and the image of the humble made victorious. Neruda’s poetry links the earthy with the celestial, a connection that resonates with the Buddhist vision of harmony between Heaven, Earth, and Man.
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was the perfect singer to glide from dimension to dimension. Her rich, hoppy timbre had a carnal buzz, and she could make the transports and torments of mythic queens sound like physical experiences. Lieberson’s performance of Neruda Songs with the Boston Symphony, available on CD, was so poignant and precise that two and a half years after I heard her sing it, it is still difficult to listen to O’Connor’s version without feeling that something is wrong. It isn’t, though. Her interpretation will probably sharpen over time, mixing some muscular joy in with the sad softness, but she has the visceral glimmer, excellent Spanish, and technique and tone to draw out the songs’ surreal languor. It’s good, too, to see a new piece flow into the repertoire of other orchestras. Conductor Bernard Haitink’s baton barely had to quiver for the Chicago Symphony to unfurl textures of gossamer, satin, and down. Haitink is minding the orchestra between Daniel Barenboim, who left in 2006, and Riccardo Muti, who takes over in 2010; judging by Neruda Songs and by a performance of Mahler’s First Symphony that was at once pellucid and panoramic, this period will be recalled as a golden interregnum.