Slim indeed was the turnout for Lorraine Hunt Lieberson‘s solo recital at Royce Hall last week; bountiful indeed were the rewards. She is every kind of phenomenal artist: majestic in stage manner, overpowering in her command of the shape of a vocal line. Just her opening phrase, a lightning bolt from Handel’s Ariodante, served notice that a sublime artist had taken possession of our ears and our souls; she went on from there.
It‘s interesting that she began her musical life as a violist. She still has that sound in her voice: rich, dark but infinitely variable, capable of the phrase that slashes, the phrase that woos. Her program was relatively brief, but in one sense too generous; her French group, for example, included only one song by each of five composers. After her starlit delivery of “Beau Soir,” I would have been happier with a further Debussy immersion, at the sacrifice of the lesser art of Chausson and Paladilhe, who do not flourish in the Debussy shadow. Robert Tweten’s excellent collaboration at the piano would also have justified a sturdier repertory choice.
Hunt Lieberson is the best singer around these days for the American repertory — for her command of melodic line, of course, but also for her ability to make language itself a thing of special beauty. I still have in my inner ear, from this remarkable concert, her shaping of the word “love” in one of Jane Kenyon‘s haunting last poems as set by Ricky Ian Gordon. At the end she sang songs by her husband, Peter Lieberson — son of the visionary Goddard Lieberson (whose exploration into unrecorded repertory the industry sorely lacks these days) and the airborne Vera Zorina — his settings of Rilke’s poetry at its most inscrutably expressionistic, nicely (and properly) set in a manner beholden to Hugo Wolf. At the very end she sang, of all surprising encore choices, H.T. Burleigh‘s fine old arrangement of “Deep River” — on the same stage, after all, where Thomas Quasthoff had sung “Ol’ Man River” not long ago.
Gloria Cheng‘s recital, the first of this season’s “Piano Sphere” events, was also diverse, perhaps to a fault. I cannot get close to Henri Dutilleux‘s scholarly but desiccated music; I once came close to blows with Andre Previn after he had inflicted one of the old boy’s symphonies on a Philharmonic audience. I admire Dutilleux‘s longevity (86 at last count) but hear his work as a persistence from the conservatoire academicism — Vincent d’Indy and his cronies — that drove Debussy and Ravel bonkers in an earlier era in French music. Gloria Cheng inflicted four dried-out bits of Dutilleux on a crowd at Zipper Hall (the Spheres‘ new venue) that, I’ll bet my chemise, would have been far happier if the opening Takemitsu selection had been three or four works instead of the one.
It was, otherwise, a fine, colorful, therefore typically Gloriaesque program: some strong recent works by Magnus Lindberg in their first local hearing, and two exquisite small bits by Earle Brown and Melissa Hui. Chinary Ung‘s piano suite Seven Mirrors delighted me not so much: music full of the pianistic bang-bang but rather less of the atmosphere I have heard in other work by this important Cambodian-born composer. But after the Chinary Ung came another small miracle, an encore consisting of the most delicate of the posthumous variations (No. 5) in Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes. It cleared the air and seemed to re-assert the supremacy of melody and harmony deployed in the cause of great art.
Frederic Rzewski‘s music is no stranger to Piano Spheres. I remember in particular being astonished by a performance of his De Profundis some years back, with Vicki Ray delivering Oscar Wilde’s heartbreaking lines and surrounding them with her own playing of Rzewski‘s lush and deeply disturbing musical commentary. Now, in a commendable act of faith, Nonesuch has brought out a seven-disc set of Rzewski’s performances of his own piano music, which includes on its final disc that same De Profundis, this time with the composer himself as both voice and pianist.
Born in Massachusetts in 1938, Rzewski has led a variegated career. After a solid immersion in Ivy League musical ideals, he shucked it all off, moved to Rome for a time, took up the notion of music as activism, turned out enormous pieces (mostly for piano, but often with voice or other “extraneous” elements mixed in) steeped in agitprop sentiments: songs of political prisoners here and abroad, of workers oppressed by bosses, of victims of society such as Oscar Wilde. His most famous piece, by title if not by substance, is an hourlong set of variations on the Chilean workers‘ song “The People United Will Never Be Defeated.” That, too, is included in the new Nonesuch set.
Rzewski’s music embraces many musics. Folksong in its broadest sense — going back to such kiddie stuff as the one about London Bridge falling down — gets ground in with newer sounds of crushing dissonance. There are big holes here and there to allow for improv. It is not a tidy repertory, but it is damned exciting.
Two of the seven discs are devoted to The Road, a piece only 50 percent completed so far; finished, it will last five hours, in eight parts. Each part is an eight-mile segment of the completed “road”; the nature of the road itself changes, from footpath to railroad track to whatever. Listening for an uninterrupted two-plus hours to the four parts so far available, you get the sense of being in a closed room with the music in the process of being born, the pianist-composer at one end, yourself at the other. There is no sense of reaching beyond that room, of grandly proclaiming great messages in a sold-out concert hall. If ever a piece of music could bring you close to the creative process, this is it.