Berlioz: Les nuits d’étè, Op. 7

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COMPOSERS: Berlioz,Handel
LABELS: Philharmonica Baroque Productions
WORKS: Berlioz: Les nuits d’été, Op. 7; Handel: Arias from Agrippina, Arianna, Giulio Cesare, Ottone & Radamisto
PERFORMER: Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo-soprano); Philharmonic Baroque Orchestra/Nicholas McGegan

Since her tragically early death in 2006, more of the unofficial recorded legacy of mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson has been released. Here the main interest in these live performances from the archive of Los Angeles’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra lies in the Berlioz cycle, Les nuits d’été, because the Handel arias were also recorded under Nicholas McGegan in the studio.
This Les nuits d’été recording comes from 1995. There’s some uncertainty of pitching in the opening song, and a suggestion of vocal edge under pressure – both very unusual for the normally immaculate Hunt Lieberson – but thereafter her warm and maternal tone combine with her interpretative commitment and spontaneity to produce wonderful results, comparable to the famous Janet Baker recording under Sir John Barbirolli. But McGegan’s period-instrument orchestra, here ‘taking a bit of a risk’, as the conductor puts it in his note, does not sound entirely idiomatic; valuable as a whole, it’s not an entirely convincing realisation and the sound is unflattering.
The 1991 Handel performances are more convincing orchestrally, while Hunt Lieberson’s inimitable approach makes a wonderful thing, for instance, out of ‘Vieni, o figlio’ from Ottone, which is about as close to vocal heaven as it gets; but these items are already available as part of a Harmonia Mundi set under McGegan’s baton. Even so, collectors of this outstanding artist will want to have her complete recordings, and rightly so. George Hall