There is a poignancy about Neruda Songs, a setting of five of the Chilean poet’s love songs by Peter Lieberson, before his wife has sounded the first note. This recording was made live, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under James Levine, a year before the great mezzo soprano died in 2006. Pablo Neruda was a political exile who wrote about love and yearning like no other – no coincidence that he makes a semi-fictional appearance in Michael Radford’s Oscar-winning romance Il Postino – and while he could never have anticipated this song cycle, there’s an aptness that his are the words that leave a record (in both senses) of a relationship.
Lieberson is a composer steeped in the American avant garde, but the music of Neruda Songs owes more to Debussy or Richard Strauss than Milton Babbitt. (Like John Adams, Lieberson has made an ideational link back to find new expression.) Hunt Lieberson, a singer famed for her interpretations of Baroque music, imbues the composer’s melodies with a warmth and strength, while Neruda himself anchors the feeling in the familiar: images of ‘triumphant washerwomen’, empty stations and trains asleep make these lyrics so real.
The fifth and last song, ‘My love, if I die and you don’t…’, takes emotion out of time to a place where there is no beginning or end: ‘[Love]…is like a long river/ only changing lands, and changing lips.’ Lieberson has scored this delicately and the voice is a strong, incisive presence undaunted by darker shades slipping into the music. It is the right note to end on.