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Tuesday, January 08, 2008


lorraine hunt lieberson

i was driving home from my train stop this evening with the radio tuned to the invaluable wfmt. there were, as there sometimes are, some men talking as i thought about other things -- it might have been a commerical, though it wasn't.

suddenly i was awakened, however, by the opening strains of what i've come to consider one of the masterworks of the western musical literature -- j.s. bach's aria, "slumber now, weary eyes", from his cantata for the purification of mary, bwv 82. i've only ever heard the piece sung by its intended voice, a male bass. but what sounded out as i turned the volume above the noise of the road was an incredible feminine voice, a mezzo soprano.

i'm generally off-put a bit by tinkering with what i perceive to have been the intention of the composer, even though bach himself frequently rearranged his own works with great flexibility... but this performance was of such stunning tenderness that my critical sense was immediately shut up. i drove to my parking spot outside my house, turned off the car and listened as the tears welled. i will always associate this aria with my daughter -- it's one of the pieces we play in the bath every night -- and to hear it in this mezzo unexpectedly moved the locus of the sentiment of the exhausted and accepting words from me to her, with unspeakable effect.

Fall asleep, you weary eyes,
close softly and pleasantly!
World, I will not remain here any longer,
I own no part of you
that could matter to my soul.
Here I must build up misery,
but there, there I will see
sweet peace, quiet rest.

the humbling singer was lorraine hunt lieberson, as i came to find in the following comments. the performance had been recorded as she was dying of breast cancer -- and the incredible depth of her reading was so explained. her 2006 new york times obit here is well worth reading.

almost as if to humiliate my fleeting and childish skepticism, i further learned in writing this that much of bwv 82 was in fact transcribed by bach for mezzo soprano in anna magdelena's notebook. serves me right -- artistry of this caliber has to be accepted as it is, for what it is, existing well beyond criticism even if any should be plausible.


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