The RSNO pays tribute to Peter Lieberson

Ravel, Lieberson, Falla: Kelley O’Connor (mezzo), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Stéphane Denève (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 29.4.2010 (SRT)

Ravel: Alborado del gracioso, Rapsodie espagnole

Lieberson: Neruda Songs

Falla: Three-Cornered Hat: Suites 1 & 2

No public holiday for the RSNO on Royal Wedding Day! Instead, on a cold and slightly miserable Edinburgh evening, they gave us a dose of Spanish sunshine that neatly echoed the holiday mood. Ravel’s two great Spanish works are fabulous showcases for an orchestra with their splashes of colour, irresistible rhythms and plentiful opportunities for solo display. The Alborado was a great curtain-raiser, bouncing merrily through its opening and closing sections while broadening out alluringly in its slower central section. Likewise, Rapsodie espagnole bristled with colour at the great dancing climaxes but the whole piece felt permeated by the heavy, languid atmosphere set up by the slow introduction to the Prelude.

Falla was also on hand to give us some more authentic Spanish flavour and hearing him in the same concert as Ravel gave the lie to the oft-cited myth that the best Spanish music was written by the French. Falla’s sense of rhythm, of explosive colour and of the beat of the dance, bounded off the stave in an interpretation of energy and vigour. Denève’s control of the changing rhythms was secure and varied, most notably when he broadened out the tempo daringly towards the end of the Final Dance. The orchestra embraced the kaleidoscope of colours with brilliance too, from the comically pompous bassoon representing the Corregidor to the arrogant cor anglais of the Miller, through to the moment in the Miller’s Dance when the entire string section surged out their rhythm like strumming like a mighty guitar.

Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs have quickly become established as modern classics. His settings of Neruda’s intense poetry – sometimes languid, sometimes sensuous, always bursting with feeling – are necessarily coloured in our imaginations by the fact that he wrote them for his mortally ill wife, the great mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Kelley O’Connor was, in fact, the first mezzo after his wife that Lieberson trusted to sing these songs and her voice bore some striking similarities to Lorraine’s: sultry and dark, sensuous, almost occluded at times. Tonight’s performance was heightened all the more by the knowledge of Peter Lieberson’s own death less than a week previously. O’Connor’s identification with this music is complete. She enters into the spirit of both words and music in a way that is almost uncanny. Lieberson’s intense, other-worldly harmonies seemed to cling to her voice in a sensual, hypnotic way. For me the highlight came at the end of the third song with the line “Will you come back? Will you leave me here, dying?” as the music dwelt on the word muriendo in a way that reminded me of Mahler. The final song, setting a poem about the death of a lover that must have been only too meaningful to Lieberson at the time of writing, seemed to be slipping from the moorings of this musical world and heading out for something in another sphere. The sensuous orchestration, rich yet delicate and individual, seemed to shimmer around O’Connor’s voice with power and beauty. The performance was dedicated to Lieberson’s memory: I think he would be pleased with the memorial.

Simon Thompson