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Lieberson's voice, husband's music make lovely pairing

Composer Peter Lieberson has inscribed the score of his ''Neruda Songs" ''to my beloved Lorraine," and his wife, mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, sang the triumphant East Coast premiere of his extraordinary, indrawing song cycle with James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra yesterday afternoon.

For this work, Peter Lieberson chose five of the 100 love sonnets the Chilean Pablo Neruda addressed to his own beloved, Matilde Urruitia. Each of the poems, in the composer's words, ''reflects a different face in love's mirror." They are passionate, mysterious, painful, joyous, piercingly sad, and, ultimately, accepting in an all-encompassing way. Love is connected to life, life to nature; love is the most intimate thing we know, and the most infinite.

Lieberson has found haunting music for Neruda's words, music that is both direct and elusive, and marking a major breakthrough in this gifted composer's style. He hasn't abandoned the complexity of technique and feeling that marks his earlier work, but he has found a new, open way of expressing himself -- and the texts. The music is dark in color, full of idiomatic Spanish timbres, rhythms, and vocal melismas. There is even a bossa nova section in the fourth song as the thought that opened the poem (''And now you're mine. Rest with your dream in my dream") takes a turn in a new, sensuous direction. Although the music is allusive, it never really sounds like anything else, although its radiant, personal intensity puts it in the company of some of the great music inspired by love in the past -- Schumann's songs or Berlioz's ''Romeo et Juliette."

Yesterday's concert marked Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's return to performance after a six-month sabbatical because of health problems. Dressed in contrasting shades of crimson, with a new short, curly hairdo, she looked and sounded glorious. Her singing is never just about singing, though her voice is lustrous and her vocalism superb. She doesn't create ''effects"; instead she expresses contrasting states of being and feeling with what is apparently utter, fearless candor. ''Ay," she cries in hope and despair in the third song (''may your silhouette never dissolve . . ."), and the tone sounds wrenched from her vitals. The last word of the cycle is ''amor," repeated three times, and she charged each with a different color and feeling, the last, quiet, serene, and sublime. One thought of the end of Mahler's ''Das Lied von der Erde."

The program opened with a lively performance of Richard Strauss's ''Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks," played with a panache matched with punctilious elegance; James Sommerville rollicked through the famous horn solo that leads off the chase.

After intermission came Mahler's Fourth Symphony, in a delightful and observant performance, for the most part played at the highest level (Malcolm Lowe, confident in the off-kilter ''devil's violin" solos, and with especially beautiful harp playing from Ann Hobson Pilot). Famed as the most transparent of Mahler's symphonies -- no trombones or tuba -- the Fourth is also one of the trickiest. With unobtrusive mastery, Levine kept everything sounding inevitable and natural, except where the music is supposed to sound grotesque. Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy, substituting for Dorothea Roeschmann, was perky and blissful in the last movement, without a hint of the operetta soubrette.

The highest tribute to a musical performance is a sustained, rapt period of silence at the close. It is a rare phenomenon, but it happened twice yesterday, after the Mahler, and after the Lieberson.

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