Hannigan Presents Vienna in the Fin de Siècle Era

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SCHÖNBERG: 4 Lieder. WEBERN: 5 Lieder on the Poetry of Richard Dehmel. BERG: 7 Frühen Lieder. ZEMLINSKY: Aus Lieder, Opp. 2, 5 & 7. A. MAHLER: 5 Lieder: Die stille stadt; Laue Sommernacht; Ich wandle unter blumen. 4 Lieder: Licht in der nacht. WOLF: Goethe-Lieder: Mignon I-III; Kennst du das land / Barbara Hannnigan, sop; Reinbert de Leeuw, pno / Alpha 393

Barbara Hannigan is an outstanding höch sopran who, like Patricia Petibon two decades ago, enjoys presenting herself in bizarre settings as sort of a “bad girl” of music. The difference is that Petibon specializes in early music while Hannigan sings primarily 12-tone and modern music. She has performed Berg’s Lulu in a semi-insane production while on pointe throughout the performance (and mostly in a bra and panties) and Ligeti’s Mystère du Macabre with Sir Simon Rattle dressed as a slutty schoolgirl popping bubblegum. Whether or not you like these things (I don’t), she is surely a great talent vocally and interpretively as this recital amply proves.

One of her greatest attributes is her ability to sing modern music as music, meaning that she phrases with a true musical line, with superb legato and phrasing, in addition to being able to interpret superbly. In this respect she is quite different from Petibon, who sings early music with a very impassioned and oftimes forceful delivery, rendering the scores as if they were passionate Romantic lieder.

In this endeavor, Hannigan is superbly aided by Dutch pianist Reinbert de Leeuw, whose playing style matches her own. From the very first notes of “Erwärtung,” the first of Schoenberg’s Op. 2 lieder, one enters a world of gentle caresses that are, surprisingly, emotionally charged without being the least bit mushy. It is an incredible achievement, and she brings the same sensibilities to the music of Anton Webern, whose music is almost always sung with a more angular sense of phrasing. Occasionally, as in “Himmelfährt,” she drains the voice of vibrato to create a haunting effect. All this is the work of a master singer.

And yet…somehow or other, Hannigan manages to make most of these songs, regardless of composer or style, sound very much alike. A rare exception is Alma Mahler’s “Ich wandle unter Blumen” with its more dramatic outburst near the end. Good or bad? I leave this decision up to you, the listener. As a specific recital of very well-chosen songs meant to express a very specific German meaning, Sehnsucht, which is literally untranslatable into English, it works very well. As the liner notes point out, “A more romantic German song text than this poem does not exist! So many composers set it, for example Schubert (six times!) and Schumann. Their songs are undoubtedly beautiful, but what Wolf did (and that was only possible at the end of the 19th century), moved it really so much further. In Wolf’s setting, the text and the music are so intertwined that one can hardly imagine anymore that they were ever separate things. At this pinnacle in the development of Lieder, music gives the word a meaning which becomes bigger than the word itself.”

This recital is indeed lovely in the truest sense of the word. None of this music is low-level, based-on-popular-music-of-the-time stuff. It is most definitely high art, but a very sensual form of high art.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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