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A Lover's Dying Words, Sumptuously Scored

The great mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson recorded <em>Neruda Songs</em> less than a year before dying at age 52.
The great mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson recorded Neruda Songs less than a year before dying at age 52.

Composers have had muses throughout the history of music, but that relationship rises to a higher level when the composer's muse happens to be a musician, and a lover. One of the most moving examples of just such an artistic partnership is evident in Neruda Songs, a new recording of love songs composer Peter Lieberson wrote for his wife, the great mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

Peter Lieberson provides settings for five love sonnets by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda: They're sumptuously scored and lit with the tenuous warmth of an Indian summer. The composer stumbled across Neruda's poems in an airport bookstore and found their tender and searching stanzas to be a perfect gift for husband and wife. Sadly, just over a year after the songs' May 2005 premiere — and less than eight months after this live recording was made — Hunt Lieberson died at 52.

The set's final song, "My love, if I die and you don't--," offers a clear-eyed tribute to everlasting love. But it's hard not to be moved listening to Hunt Lieberson's gorgeous, smoky voice, as well as her unsentimental approach to music that already aches with yearning and loss. Neruda's last line — "But love, this love has not ended: just as it never had a birth, it has no death: it is like a long river, only changing lands, and changing lips" — perfectly complements the composer's gently rocking rhythm. His descending four-note theme feels like a gentle lullaby, as he slowly rocks his dear wife to sleep.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.