"Lyrical Interval: Song Cycle for Piano and Low Voice" was given a stunning first performance by baritone David Hamilton and pianist Stuart Raleigh last night at the Library of Congress. In this work, poet John Hollander and composer Hugo Weisgall, two of America's most accomplished craftsmen in their respective arts, have joined forces to produce a masterpiece.

In their introductory remarks, Hollander and Weisgall described their work as a sort of tribute to the great song cycles of the 19th century. The tribute is beautifully executed -- not in terms of slavish imitation but in reviving the spirit and impact of the cycles of Schubert and Schumann in a modern context. The poetry and music are both clearly work of the present, in the neoromantic mode. Verbally and musically, the lyric impulse is stronger than it might have been 15 or 20 years ago. But this modern lyricism has a sadder-but-wiser air; it stops slightly short of the fresh spontaneity, the emotional extremes of ecstasy and despair that were available to Heinrich Heine and the composers who set him to music in his lifetime.

Hollander echoes Heine's irony more readily than his idealism; his meters are less regular and he uses rhyme sparingly, freely for special, carefully calculated effects. Weisgall's melodic lines are more angular than Schubert's, and his harmonies venture into levels of acidity that Schubert (a daring harmonist for his time) never explored. But there are constant echoes of the great predecessors in the atmosphere of the work, in its overall structure and in small details.

Certain key words ("dark," for example) recur constantly with changing overtones as the emotional climate of the cycle changes; and Weisgall sets them with marvelous sensitivity not only to the words' meaning but to the ways the context is changing the overtones. In his sensitivity to words' weight and in the fully equal and splendidly dramatic role he gives the piano, Weisgall shows himself a worthy successor to Schubert and Schumann.

Hamilton sang the words with a sure sense of style; his voice was expertly controlled and he projected words clearly, with a fine sense of their poetry and drama. Raleigh's piano part was fully as challenging -- the piano's dialogue and comments are an essential and vivid part of the work, and he conveyed that part powerfully.