An Outstanding Concert Graced by Barbara Hannigan’s Artistry

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schoenberg, Alma Mahler, and Berg – ‘Air from another planet’:Barbara Hannigan (soprano), Reinbert de Leeuw (piano), Quatuor Diotima (Yunpeng Zhao, Guillaume Latour (violins), Franck Chevalier (viola), Pierre Morlet (cello)). Queen Elizabeth Hall, Londonm 24.1.2013 (MB)

Schoenberg: Four Songs, op.2
Alma Mahler: Four Songs
Berg:  Seven Early Songs
Schoenberg:  String Quartet no.2


Has Barbara Hannigan ever given a performance that did not stand at the highest level, technically, musically, and with the most exquisite taste in repertoire? I am sure she must have done at some point, but I am equally sure that I have never heard it. From what I think was the first time I heard her, singing ‘Djamila Boupacha’, from Nono’s Canti di vita e d’amore, to a 2011 Pli selon pli under Boulez himself, I have been spellbound. This was not the first time I had heard her as the soprano for Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet; a rugged Edinburgh Festival performance with the Arditti Quartet provided an interesting comparison with the present performance. Nor was it the first time I had heard her sing Berg’s Seven Early Songs, this concert having been preceded by a Berlin outing for Reinbert de Leeuw’s chamber arrangement, again conducted by Boulez. But which other sopranos would one be likely to hear not once but twice in this repertoire, let alone in the gorgeous unfolding of Boulez’s masterpiece?

We began with Schoenberg’s op.2 songs: a rare opportunity, though I really cannot understand why. De Leeuw featured in this first half as pianist, offering a highly intelligent ear – and equally intelligent fingers – to proceedings, Schoenberg’s harmonies in the opening ‘Erwartung’ already full of unexpected twists, never underlined but permitted ‘simply’ to speak for themselves. Echoes of the Cabaret Songs, in harmony if not in verse, also manifested themselves, seemingly without intervention, though we know how much art will often be involved in art’s concealment. Coolness and Romantic warmth were heard not to be mutually opposed, but in what, almost paradoxically, one might call a gentle dialectic. Hannigan’s diction and general way with Richard Dehmel’s words were irreproachable, the musical world created in response very much post-Tristan. It was Parsifal, and Kundry, Schoenberg seemed to be answering in ‘Schenk mir deinen goldenen Kamm’. Delicious near-blasphemies sounded, in work and performance, very much as if part of Klingsor’s armoury. ‘Oh, Maria!’ indeed. Somehow Hannigan managed to combine purity and eroticism in the final ‘Magdalena’. One needed a cold shower afterwards. The closing ‘Waldsonne’, the only one of the four songs not to a text by Dehmel, sounded almost pastoral, with a musically undulating quality set up in the piano and responded to in the vocal line. Longing and ecstasy were yet never far behind.

I wish I could enthuse about Alma Mahler’s music. Well, perhaps I do not since I find her difficult to warm to as a person, but anyway, it is always a pleasure to make interesting discoveries of the unjustly neglected. However, I have never heard a work by Alma that has not suggested that, questionable though Gustav’s discouragement of her as a composer may have been in moral terms, it was no disaster for the history of music. No matter: doubtless Alma has her fans, and we are not exactly deluged with performances of her music. It is worthwhile hearing such pieces from time to time in order to remind ourselves that we do not need to hear from her again for a while. Alas, the performance was not helped by a programme that referred to and printed the texts for the wrong songs. Much of the first song, Die stille Stadt was therefore spent, not unreasonably, by the audience trying to work out what was going on. We then heard, I later discovered, Laue Sommernacht, Ich wandle unter Blumen, and Licht in der Nacht, the only song actually present in the programme booklet, although there it was claimed we should hear it first. To be fair to Alma, the harmonies and range of expression were greater than I recalled; perhaps this was a mark of superior performance too. Certainly Hanningan’s contribution was committed, sensual, highly evocative. The music sounds more ‘late Romantic’, even decadent, than that of Gustav, perhaps closer to the world of Schoenberg’s op.2. If ultimately one can hardly claim the songs to be more than accomplished, there is a place sometimes for accomplishment too.

For all that, the gulf between talent and genius was immediately apparent upon hearing the piano introduction to ‘Nacht’, the first of Berg’s Seven Early Songs. Hallucinatory harmonies worked their way up through the piano, joined by a vocal line that, unlike those of Alma, is simply unforgettable. Hannigan’s performance combined beauty, danger, and sexiness. Musical form was expertly shaped by both musicians, ‘Und aus tiefen Grundes Düsterheit’ offering a proper sense of return. The final ‘Acht!’ was as much breathed as sung: dangerous stuff! De Leeuw brought to our attention the ‘involved’ Brahmsian quality of Berg’s piano writing in ‘Schilflied’, harmony and counterpoint already peering into the twelve-note future. A glorious, radiant account of ‘Die Nachtigall’ prepared the way for the central ‘Traumgekrönt’, Hannigan’s nocturnal soaring, half-dream and half-nightmare, offering a presentiment of Lulu. Eroticism far surpassing that of Schoenberg: this could only be Berg. ‘Im Zimmer’ offered a glance back to a more innocent early Romanticism; well, perhaps. De Leeuw’s vast experience showed in the masterly building towards climax of ‘Liebesode’. Finally, in ‘Sommertage’, whilst still very much in the world of the Lied, we again seemed to be on the verge of the operatic stage, Berg’s destiny already manifest.

The intimacy of the opening to Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet took me rather by surprise, the tone adopted by the Quatuor Diotima far removed from the rich, heated late Romanticism more commonly adopted in this repertoire. It was not chilly modernism, either, but something more refined, even Gallic. Harmonics offered a portent of things to come, not just in Schoenberg’s music but even in the post-war avant garde. Great clarity permitted the counterpoint truly to be heard; there was not the slightest sense of congestion. If understated, the performance remained febrile. Crucially, the extraordinary concision of Schoenberg’s writing told; this might have been the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The stuttering hesitancy of the second movement’s opening seemed both to hail from late Beethoven and to denote something entirely new: rather like late Beethoven itself, one might say. Seemingly infinite rhythmic flexibility was a hallmark of the Diotima’s performance. Motivic construction was lain bare, though not drily; it truly involved. ‘Litanei’ opened with warm, yet anything but un-variegated, string consolation, offering a sense that this was indeed uncharted territory, the voice anticipated. When it joined the performance, it was not as interloper but almost as if another instrument, heightening and furthering a drama it was increasingly difficult not to consider ‘expressionist’. That is not to say that earlier subtlety was lost, far from it. Stefan Georg’s words took on new meaning after having heard Schoenberg’s op.2, an interesting quirk, perhaps intended, of this performance. Kundry again seemed to be invoked in words and music: ‘Töte das sehnen, schliesse die wunde!’ Even before the voice entered in the final movement, there was a true sense of liberation, of that celebrated air of other planets. (The programme translation rather unfortunately had it, ‘I feel wind from other planets.’) Was tonality suspended or had it been truly escaped from? It seemed, as a sports commentator might have it, that there was everything to play for. Yet this new harmonic world did not detract from tightness of motivic working, either in work or performance; rather it was set in new relief. Hannigan’s delivery of that line was simply ravishing. Indeed throughout, Georg’s verse and Schoenberg’s notes were equally relished. ‘Ich lose mich in tönen, kreisend, webend…’ We certainly did lose ourselves in those tones. As ever, one wished that this would prove a world in which one might stay forever, yet equally one knew that that could no more be the case for Mozart’s world, or that of Tristan. There was a true sense of the Liebestod to Hannigan’s final lines, after which the quartet proper re-emerged, though it had always been there, not unlike Mahler’s music in Berio’s Sinfonia. This performance, quite rightly, looked ahead as much as back.

Hannigan will next be heard in London in February for Stravinsky’s Renardand Satie’s Socrate at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, again part of the Southbank Centre’s festival, ‘The Rest is Noise’. March will bring the British premiere of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin. Again, they are performances to which discerning listeners would likely gravitate on repertoire grounds alone, but Hannigan’s presence will do them no harm at all.

Mark Berry