Berlioz: Les Nuits d'Été; Handel: Arias from Giulio Cesare; Ottone; Arianne; Radamisto and Agrippina – review

Hunt Lieberson/Philharmonia Baroque O/McGegan (Philharmonia Baroque)

Philharmonia Baroque, San Francisco's resident period-instrument orchestra, launches its own CD label with a disc that pays wonderful tribute to one of the greatest singers of our time. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson grew up in the Bay Area and worked as a professional viola player there before she became a singer – a soprano first and then settling into mezzo parts. Up until 1995, she continued to record and appear in concert with the Philharmonia Baroque and its conductor, Nicholas McGegan. The Handel arias that appear here, all of them originally written for Margherita Durastanti (another singer who evolved from soprano to mezzo), are taken from a concert in 1991 that was part of the preparation for a Handel disc that Hunt Lieberson was about to record with the same orchestra for Harmonia Mundi. They are glorious, exquisitely polished performances, every role inhabited comprehensively, even within the space of a single four‑minute aria; the seamless legato in Vieni o Figlio from Ottone is jaw-droppingly beautiful. But it is Berlioz's song cycle that is the real revelation. The performances of Les Nuits d'Eté in 1995 were Hunt Lieberson's last with McGegan and his orchestra, and the first time they had ventured as far into the 19th century as Berlioz. No other recordings of Hunt Lieberson singing this cycle have been released so far, and the astonishing velvety evenness of her singing in a number such as Sur les Lagunes, symbiotically entwined with the string textures around her, is worth the price of the disc alone.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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