Barbara Hannigan’s Latest “Passione”


LA PASSIONE / NONO: Djamila Boupacha for Soprano Solo. HAYDN: Symphony No. 49 in f min., “La Passione.” GRISEY: Quatre Chants pour Franchir le Seuil / Barbara Hannigan, sop/cond; Ludwig Orch. . Alpha 586

Good old crazy Barbara Hannigan, famous for dressing up like a slutty schoolgirl and chewing gum as she sings Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre (as well as singing Berg’s Lulu while cavorting around the stage on pointe in toe shoes!), returns to give us three pieces—two modern and one quite old—forming “a triptych: 3 images, three perspectives of transfigured nights.”

The first of these is Luigi Nono’s “station of La Passione” about an Algerian freedom fighter, Djamila Boupacha, against the French occupation of her country. Born of an illiterate French-speaking father and a mother who did not speak French, she worked as a hospital trainee but was prevented from getting a trainee’s certificate because of her race and religion. After attempting to bomb a café in Algiers in 1960, she was arrested along with and her father and brother-in-law. The police forced a confession out of her via rape and torture. Her trial drew the attention of Simone de Beauvoir and Gisèle Halimi, both of whom lobbied for her release. Originally sentenced to death in June 1961, she was freed under the Evian Accords on April 21, 1962. As of this writing, she is still alive (source: Wikipedia).

The poem used for the lyrics to this Nono piece was written by de Jésus Lopez Pacheco:

Lift this centuries-old fog
from my eyes.
I want to see things
as a child does
It’s sad to wake each morning
and find everything the same.
This night of blood,
the unending mire
A day must dawn,
a new day.
The light must come,
believe what I tell you.

Naturally, a poem this sort could never be stretched out to fit a piece that is five minutes long, so Nono uses not only very stretched-out note lengths but also some moments of wordless vocal. The music is atonal but very interesting and creative, alternating the edgy moments with ones of surprising lyricism within a tonal framework. The singer is required to sing within an extraordinarily wide range, going up into the soprano stratosphere as well as down into what one would normally consider the mezzo range. I’m not sure whether this was Nono’s intention or Hannigan’s artistic choice (probably the former), but much of the music is focused on the vowel sounds, the consonants being sung softly without hard attacks. It is a fascinating piece.

Hannigan then conducts a performance of Haydn’s 49th Symphony, titled “La Passione,” in a style that harks back to the good old days when conductors actually used continuous legato phrasing in slow movements. I would assume that the Ludwig Orchestra, a Dutch organization formed in 2011, is using straight tone in the strings (don’t they all nowadays?), but their elegance of style and phrasing makes the results very satisfying to listen to. Of course, since Hannigan is the conductor here, some of this, too, may have been her artistic choice. In the liner notes, she describes this symphony as “a universal ritual for loss and grieving, beyond a single figure. The symphony is a journey of souls: the ones enduring on earth and the ones who have departed.” I was struck by the resemblance of the slow first movement to the music of Gluck or even mid-period Beethoven. A remarkable work, given a remarkable performance. The “Allegro di molto” second movement has an almost manic bite and drive, as does the last movement.

Then we come to Gérard Grisey’s Quatre Chants pour Franchir le Seuil (Four Songs to Cross the Threshold). In Hannigan’s words, it is “Confused, tender, angry and curious…full of breath and rhythm, otherworldly tunings of the spheres, and cries into the abyss.” Grisey, who died in November 1998 from a ruptured aneurism at the age of 52, was a major pioneer in a field that others called “Spectral music,” though both Grisey and fellow-composer Tristan Murail rejected that label as simplistic and fetishistic.

The entire work, which runs 40 minutes, is divided into five sections, the first and fourth being the longest. The chamber orchestra accompaniment, really a small chamber group consisting of brass and winds (mostly playing softy, and muted, in their lower registers), plays bitonal but lyrical music while the soprano soloist sings short, breathless, staccato phrases to a poem by Christian Guez-Ricord (the first) and texts from the Egyptian Sarcophagi of the Middle Empire (#2), an excerpt from Erinna (#3) and “The death of humankind” from The Epic of Gilgamesh (#5). It is indeed a strange work, haunting and moving. Occasionally the tuba, bass clarinet and horn grunt out louder, more threatening notes, increasing the feeling of doom, but these come later on, near the end of Part 3 (track 8) and beyond. There are also occasional and very soft percussion effects, introduced at the very beginning and elsewhere almost like some sort of dubbed-in ambient sound. These are evidently not meant to sound overtly threatening except when they become much louder in track 9 but, rather, an undercurrent of unease and uncertainty.

What’s interesting about this disc is that it could have been timed to coincide with the Covid19 outbreak which is now frightening the world, but since Hannigan recorded this album in June and July 2019, months before the first outbreak in Wuhan province, she could not have known it was coming. In any event, the primary mood of this CD is dark and bleak. You had best be in a good frame of mind before you listen to it, but it is surely a rewarding and fascinating experience.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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