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Reviews

21 Mar 2019

Barbara Hannigan sings Berg and Gershwin at the Barbican Hall

I first heard Barbara Hannigan in 2008.

Barbara Hannigan and the LSO at the Barbican Hall

A review by Mark Berry

 

She was singing songs by Berg and Webern with Pierre Boulez and immediately made a great impression. Since then, she has been one of those artists I should make an extra effort to hear; not once have I been even slightly disappointed. Hannigan is, of course, most widely known as a singer, but she has been building a parallel, or rather complementary, career as a conductor in the meantime too. I heard her conduct the Britten Sinfonia in 2013, in works by Mozart, Stravinsky, and Haydn , for some of which she sang too - and once again proved enthusiastic. This concert, her LSO debut, offered a worthy successor in that line, now performing works by Ligeti, Haydn again, Berg, and Gershwin.

Ligeti’s Concert Românesc is one of those pieces we hear more than we probably ought: not in the sense that there is anything wrong with them, but rather that they seem to offer an early, unrepresentative piece by a composer who might otherwise be ignored. Webern’s Passacaglia or even Im Sommerwind would be obvious examples, even Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Hannigan is certainly not one to neglect Ligeti; one of her most celebrated performances, not least on YouTube, is of his Mysteries of the Macabre (also with the LSO). I could not help, however, but feel that this was a performance-in-progress - although it may simply have been a matter of nerves, of having come first in the programme. Even when it lacked ‘traditional’ incisiveness, as in the first section, there were gains, though, not least a sense of how close the music might sound to early Bartók, even to Strauss. Bartókian ‘night music’ of a later vintage certainly sang forth in the third section, even if the final ‘Presto’ came off somewhat hard-driven. In any case, there was much to relish from the solo work of LSO principals.

Haydn’s Symphony no.86 furthered Hanningan’s growing reputation in Haydn’s music: always a fine indicator of other strengths. The first movement’s introduction offered a grandeur and expectation that Colin Davis (thinking of the LSO) would surely have appreciated, with none of the irritations that, alas, often accompany Simon Rattle’s way with this composer. If its principal tempo were on the fast side, it was not unreasonably so. The music largely spoke here ‘for itself’, however much of an illusion that may be, the development especially well handled, the final coda a joy. Constructivism and lyricism were kept in a fruitful, generative relationship throughout in the second movement, founded, as it must be, in harmony and harmonic movement. This is music to rival Schoenberg in complexity - something most ‘period’ voices, alas, seem entirely to ignore. So too is the minuet - as soon as one listens, which Hannigan ensured that we did. Its trio relaxed harmonically and offered in tandem a winning sense of relative metrical freedom. Delightful, then, as was the finale, one of my very favourites: heard as if Leonard Bernstein had returned, albeit with greater dynamic variegation. It was as witty as it was thrilling, as convincing vertically as horizontally. More please!

Hannigan’s way with Berg’s Lulu-Suite was surprising. It took me a while to get used to, and there were unquestionably aspects of the music that went a little uncared for. That said, to hear it performed with such attention to the multifarious melodic strands - heard, I suspect, very much from a singer’s standpoint - was fascinating. So too was the relative lightness, almost Mendelssohnian, with which the first movement ‘Rondo’ was despatched. The big moments certainly told, but they were not everything. I am not sure I should always want to hear the music like this - indeed, I am sure that I should not - but to hear the classic Romantic/modernist dichotomy not so much evaded as avoided brought plenty of its own interest. Transparency is necessary no matter what the interpretative standpoint, of course; here, Hannigan and the LSO excelled. One might have taken dictation, vocal and verbal, from Hannigan’s sung contribution to the ‘Lied der Lulu’, which was ‘concert-acted’ too. Coloratura held no fear for her, but crucially, it was employed dramatically, just as in Mozart. If there were a few rough orchestral edges to the fourth movement, it is difficult to imagine them having bothered anyone but pedants. The final ‘Adagio’ emerged properly de profundis, as eloquent as if its lines were being sung. Hannigan’s melisma on ‘Engel’ truly told. Quite a performance, then, in so many ways.

The Gershwin suite with which the concert concluded proved equally fascinating - and perhaps still more thrilling. Conceived by Hannigan with the express purpose of accompanying the Lulu-Suite, its ingenious orchestration for identical forces was commissioned from Bill Elliott. As a Bergian, at times Mahlerian, soundworld unfolded, it did not jar. Quite the contrary: t drew one in, not only harmonically but also motivically, to the material of the three songs, ‘But not for me’, ‘Embraceable you’, and ‘I got rhythm’. Then, of course, there was Hannigan’s own star quality as a singer: different, perhaps, from the stars one often associates with this music, but in no sense less bright. It was sung as carefully as Berg had been, without ever sounding ‘careful’. The orchestra joined in with some vocal harmony too, but this was in every sense Hannigan’s show, ‘I got rhythm’ straightforwardly sensational.

Mark Berry

Ligeti: Concert Românesc; Haydn: Symphony no.86 in D major; Berg:Lulu Suite; Gershwin, arr. Barbara Hannigan and Bill Elliott: Girl Crazy: Suite. London Symphony Orchestra/Barbara Hannigan (soprano, conductor).

Barbican Hall, London, Sunday 17 March 2019.

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