During the last years of her life, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's singing, always touching and emotional, became heartrending. This recital from 2004 is particularly haunted. The selections are taken slowly, often very slowly, with maximum expression, as if the singer cannot help but cling to every phrase. At times, as in the Mozart group, the pacing is too broad and the emotion too wrenching for the material. At other times, as in the Brahms group, her deep feelings lead to transcendent music-making, the kind that is breathless and blissful at the same time. The two cantatas by Handel and Mozart find Hunt Lieberson in prime territory. They are given tragic resonance and highly romantic delivery.
But categories like classical and romantic are irrelevant. Everything here has a tragic resonance. Surely Hunt Lieberson herself felt this at the time. Peter Serkin's accompaniments are also unusually subdued. I found it difficult to get through the recital in one go. Every song stands on its own as an object lesson in perfect mastery, recalling the greatness of Christa Ludwig and Janet Baker. Hunt Lieberson was a more profound interpreter of Handel (and Bach) than either one, and the warm, ample voice remained amazingly well preserved through so much suffering. This CD is the most difficult to listen to among the treasures that have come out since Hunt Lieberson's death. One might be well advised to begin instead with "Lorraine Hunt Lieberson at Emmanuel," which is devoted to her sublime Baroque singing. To tell the truth, this incomparable artist, like Kathleen Ferrier, another doomed and beloved singer, left hardly a note behind that isn't magnificent. In both cases, it was the spiritual dimension that remains so memorable.