Lieberson returns to Neruda’s well

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / March 26, 2010

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Peter Lieberson’s extraordinary “Neruda Songs,’’ co-commisioned by the BSO and premiered in 2005, address their listeners with a rare combination of coloristic sophistication, stripped-down lyricism, emotional honesty, and aching beauty. The cycle was written for the composer’s wife, the revered mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who sang them with the BSO less than a year before her death from breast cancer in summer 2006.

Since that time, Peter Lieberson has himself battled lymphoma and leukemia. But his health improved and, to his own surprise, he fell in love once more and remarried. For a follow-up BSO commission, what was to be a tribute set of “Farewell Songs’’ became “Songs of Love and Sorrow,’’ reaching for a wider panoply of human emotions as distilled in the love sonnets of Pablo Neruda, the same deep poetic well from which the original cycle was drawn.

The new work, scored for baritone and orchestra, had its premiere last night at Symphony Hall led by the young conductor Jayce Ogren filling in for James Levine, who withdrew due to ongoing back problems. Gerald Finley was the vocal soloist.

Nothing could match the closed-circle intensity behind the first cycle, a husband setting love poetry for his own ailing wife to sing as nobody else could, but the new work is a major accomplishment and a fully worthy sequel to the original songs.

Both cycles contain five songs and inhabit neighboring sound worlds. In each case, the vocal line is exquisitely supported by an empathetic orchestra, often deployed in smaller sections to underline, shade, or swirl above the text at hand. The new cycle opens with a deep warm ribbon of cello sound, a theme both imploring and elegiac, that quickly expands to the strings and beyond. The second song, driven by a brighter pulsing orchestra, dives into a world of sensual particulars, beginning with the line, “Full woman, flesh-apple, hot moon.’’

The cycle is strong throughout, but it also builds to a heightened emotional pitch in the fifth and final song, in which the composer, through Neruda’s verse, seems to be addressing both his past and present loves as the baritone sings, “I don’t know who it is who lives or dies, who rests or wakes, but it is your heart who distributes all the graces of the daybreak.’’ The orchestral writing is remarkably subtle and rich. The final word is farewell.

Finley was superb in this first performance, and Ogren did an honorable job filling in on short notice. Schubert and Sibelius rounded out the program. But the night belonged to Lieberson.

BSO Jayce Ogren, conductor

At: Symphony Hall, last night (repeats today, tomorrow and Tuesday)