Lorraine Hunt Lieberson

A friend recently asked for good versions of Bach cantatas. One record is hands-down my favorite. When I first got it, I listened to it all the time; I don’t so much anymore, because it’s the very rare recording that’s really emotionally draining: Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s versions of BWV82 (“Ich habe genug“) and BWV199 (“Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut”). Alex Ross called her “the most remarkable voice I’ve ever heard.” She died of breast cancer in her early fifties – and it devastated her devoted fans. A few years earlier she had performed the “Ich habe genug” cantata in a hospital gown and socks.

The greatest singers, I’m convinced, sound like they’re speaking when they’re singing – in the sense that they’re communicating in a direct manner to you. Vico speculates, as have many since him, that language was born of song. He charmingly notes that many stutterers can overcome their stuttering by singing. If I judge by most of the performances of Bach and Handel, it’s not easy for us to make their texts come alive in song. But LHL sounds like she’s giving it to you as straight as it can be given. Here she is singing Handel – you can jump to 1:35 to begin the aria “As with rosy steps the morn”:

Alex Ross said, correctly, that one of the few singers he could think to compare her with was Mahalia Jackson. Mahalia’s voice had the same ingredients that combine to seem holy.

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