Spanish Love Songs. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, mezzo-soprano; Joseph Kaiser, tenor; Steven Blier & Michael Barrett, piano. Bridge 9228, ©2007, 67:47, $14.99.

This is a live recording from July 9, 2004, at the Caramoor Music Festival in Katonah, NY, where the performance reprised one from Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall on the New York Festival of Song series earlier that year. The performers had hoped to make a studio recording of the music but were unable to coordinate schedules before Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s premature passing. The recorded sound is inevitably a bit distant, though not disturbingly so. Mercifully, Bridge has done the best that can be achieved in suppressing the applause that inevitably followed each number, fading it out as soon as it erupts, occasionally, alas, in rock-concert style, before the final sung note has died. Well-deserved applause is wonderful when you are present for the performance but very annoying when you are listening in the peaceful quiet of your living room. One cough is heard in track 8, and there are numerous laughs in track 20, but the songs are mostly undisturbed by extraneous noise. Bridge is to be congratulated on its fine engineering.

The program’s title is slightly misleading, for not all of the songs are Spanish or even in Spanish; Spain is, however, the inspiration for those that aren’t, or they use a Spanish melody. Songs from France and Germany are included, and the final number, actually an encore, is “Barcelona,” from Stephen Sondheim’s Company. One repertoire of Spain-inspired works omitted is the surprisingly extensive Russian one, explored by mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina and pianist Semyon Skigin on a 1997 Philips CD entitled Bolero: A Spanish Songbook, now out of print. Not all of the works are songs, either, for that matter; a few are actually arias from zarazuelas. Neither are all of them about love; one is a lullaby. “For the Love of Spain” might perhaps have been more precise.

The recital features works by Granados, Lamote de Grignon, Turina, Rodrigo, Montsalvatge, Mompou, Torroba, Luna, Yradier, Roussel, Ravel, Chabrier, Schumann, and Wolf. It is a good and interesting representative selection: some are quite familiar, others more obscure. Most are solo songs, but a few are duets and/or songs with two-piano accompaniment. Two striking innovations are the Vocalise arrangement of Ravel’s “Habañera” and the duet + two-piano arrangement of a vocal version of Chabrier’s “España,” both of which are ravishing.

The performances are stunning. LHL inhabits, embodies the music; you almost feel it ooze from her pores as it pours from her mouth. Joseph Kaiser is equally impressive, often exuding exquisite charm. Both have some bravura moments in the generally standard recital-style presentations. Their voices blend magnificently in the duets. The piano accompaniment is superb, even if it is less present than would be the case in a studio recording. Through the sampling of the various traditions represented, the program offers various moods and styles that hold your interest, sometimes as you hold your breath because of the beauty! Some interpretations seem so perfect that you can’t imagine anyone topping them.

The booklet features notes by Steven Blier that are perceptive and pithy and, because they are written in chronological rather than performance order, give a mini-history of Spanish vocal music. He captures the essence of each composer and song in a nutshell capsule. Fine tributes to LHL by each of the pianists are both revealing and touching. The texts and translations, also done by Blier, are in the center on plain white pages, enveloped by the outer pages that have a colored border, notes before and artist bios after them, making for an attractive as well as a practical production, and putting everything associated with the music ahead of that dealing with its interpreters, the order that true musicians espouse. Credits are on the back cover; the detailed program with performers’ initials and playing times for each song just inside the front one, also without the border.

There are several other collections of Spanish songs similar to this one: ¡España! with Ann Murray, mezzo-soprano, and Graham Johnson, piano, and members of The Songmakers’ Almanac, from 1988 on Hyperion (which also includes a solo version of the Chabrier with the same Adenis text, but there are no other duplicates) comes to mind as the closest; it is among this writer’s favorites. This one is different enough from all of them and has unique offerings to make it a CD to treasure even without the added consideration of its LHL legacy factor. It’s a pure joy to listen to.