Peter Lieberson: Neruda Songs. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, mezzo-soprano, Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine, conducting. Nonesuch 79954 (31:49) ©2006. $14.98.

I concluded my recent review of the recording of a collection of three of Peter Lieberson’s works, including his Rilke Songs sung by his late wife Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, by expressing the hope that his final work for her, the Neruda Songs, which she had premiered in 2005 in Los Angeles and then in Boston, had been recorded and would be released. My wish has been granted: this is it, the Boston performance of November 2005.

The five poems are selected from Chilean Pablo Neruda’s 1959 Cien sonetos de amor, Nos. VIII, XXIV, XLV, LXXXI, and XCII, in that order in the cycle, and sung in their original language. The music follows the words, caressing them so closely that it seems a perfect marriage. The orchestration is lush, sumptuous, ravishingly beautiful in a way, like a huge painting on a smooth canvas, a vast seascape, for example. The overarching feeling is one of calm beauty and soulful serenity, but with occasional dramatic moments. Each song has its own dominant mood, and often a given line within a song, its own character. The third sonnet dealing with the painful contemplation of separation is somewhat plaintive, the fourth celebratory. Certain words, like the recurring “amor” and “bienamada” are treated in an exuberant manner whenever they appear, with the music rising to a joyous climax.

The performance by its now deceased dedicatee is both transcendent and touching, heart-rending even, because the history of both the composition of the cycle and the idyllic relationship of the couple are so well known to all. No doubt about it, this is LHL’s supreme and superlative legacy to all who knew and loved her and all who loved her without having had the pleasure and privilege of knowing her.

On first listening, I could not help but think of another famous song cycle with brilliant orchestration and magnificent conjunction of music and words: Hector Berlioz’ 1840s Les Nuits d’été that sets six poems by the same author, Théophile Gautier. So, I took it out to listen, compare and contrast, and concluded that even if a subconscious feeling brought it to mind, it was not without cause or merit. Besides the fact that these poems have more literary merit, Neruda Songs is a better-crafted cycle, with the recurring personae, themes, and words joining the individual songs to each other in a way that those of Nuits are not. But the way the music treats the words, flows and ebbs with the rhythm of the lines, occasionally surging and washing over the listener like the waves of the sea, is the same. It has a very similar and comparable effect and impact, albeit with less variety and extremes of rhythm and mood.

The booklet is a study in the power of simplicity. The whole is in black and white, and all but one of the blank pages are black rather than white. The only color in the entire production is the 1998 Emil Miland photo of the couple seated in grasses that fills the reverse of the cardboard sleeve, and that relates to the grasses in the black and white landscape photo by Scott McCreery on the inside of the tray card (beneath the CD holder). A 2003 Richard Avedon photo of the singer graces the cover, as well as appearing in smaller scale on the front of the cardboard sleeve, and a different but similar one from The New Yorker appears inside. After the title page come notes by the singer and the composer chronicling the chance encounter with the book, the composition of the work, and describing their life together. Next comes a bio of them and their relationship that is at the same time a tribute, and an analysis of the work by Alex Ross. A note follows this from Peter Lieberson about the selection of the poems, in turn followed by their texts with side-by-side 1986 English translations by Stephen Tapscott. Credits conclude. The whole is a serene In Memoriam.

Because of the circumstances surrounding the work’s creation and première performances and this recording, it will be some time before another well-known mezzo, such as Frederica von Stade or Susan Graham, dares to present it in concert, much less record it. But dare one of them must one day, because this work deserves to enter the canon on the level of the Berlioz. It is a sublime achievement and its impact will extend beyond and outside of these circumstances for listeners who do not know them or are not so close to them. Like Berlioz’ Nuits d’été, it will withstand the test of fifty or a hundred and fifty years of time because of its power and its craft. The circumstances enrich it; they do not make it the magical work that it is, even though they brought it into existence.

This is a stunning achievement by Peter Lieberson, and this a stunning recording, one to be enjoyed repeatedly as well as treasured. It is well worth its high per-note price!