Barbara Hannigan’s “Songs of Vienna”: An Enjoyable and Interesting Evening

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berg, Chausson, Mahler, Schoenberg, Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss: Barbara Hannigan (soprano), Jacqueline Shave (violin), Miranda Dale (violin), Clare Finnimore (viola), Iain Farrington (piano and harmonium), Mark Knoop (piano), Milton Court, Guildhall School of Music, London, 7.5.2015 (AS)

Richard Strauss – Ständchen
Schoenberg – Six pieces for four hands
Berg – Hier ist Friede, Op. 4 No. 5
Chausson – Chanson perpétuelle, Op. 37
Johann Strauss (arr. Schoenberg) – Lagunen Walzer, Op. 411
Mahler – Piano Quartet in A minor
Schoenberg – String Quartet No. 2 in F sharp minor, Op. 10

This was one of two programmes devised by Barbara Hannigan and performed by her with the Britten Sinfonia on a brief tour of the UK. The first programme featured the full Britten Sinfonia with Hannigan as both soloist and conductor in works by Haydn, Mozart and Stravinsky: this had been heard in the Barbican Hall on the previous evening. Now, in Milton Court, we heard the second programme, entitled “Songs of Vienna”.

Strauss’s Ständchen was not the familiar song, Op. 17 No. 2, but a brief serenade for piano quartet, written in 1882 when the composer was 18. It is a charming, lilting and tuneful piece, played simply and directly by Farrington and his colleagues. The theme of youthful compositions continued with Schoenberg’s six piano duet pieces of 1896, written when the composer was 22. Even though he had achieved adulthood, there is nothing in these short mood pictures that even hints at the musical revolution that Schoenberg would initiate. They are just pleasingly melodic Romantic trifles not far away from the styles of Schubert and Brahms, realised sympathetically by Farrington, now partnered by Mark Knoop.

It was then on to another early-ish work, Berg’s ‘Hier ist Friede’, the fifth song from his Altenberg Lieder for soprano and orchestra of 1904, transcribed by the composer in 1919 for violin, cello, piano and harmonium (without voice). Though this was again nicely performed there may have been audience members who were beginning to wonder when Hannigan would appear, but their wait was soon over, for the soprano now gave a performance of Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle, in the version with string quartet and piano accompaniment. The programme note justified the inclusion of a French mélodie in a programme of Viennese music by making a claim that Chausson’s works have more similarities with those of Austro-German composers than those of other French composers. Whether this is so or not didn’t really matter a great deal, and Hannigan certainly gave a most glorious performance of this lovely song.

The first half ended with Johann Strauss II’s Lagunen Walzer, a sequence taken from his operetta Eine Nacht in Venedig, played here in a 1921 transcription by Schoenberg for an ensemble consisting of string quartet, piano and harmonium. There was nothing very radical here in the instrumental mixture – just a sequence of waltzes treated by the arranger with great respect.

After the interval we went back initially to the theme of composers’ early works with a performance of the single surviving movement, an Allegro, from Mahler’s Piano Quartet, written when the composer was 16 years old. It’s an assured composition, with echoes of Schumann and Mendelssohn, but the piano part’s continually repeated chords do become a little tiresome.

Finally we came to what was clearly the main event of the evening, a performance of Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2. It’s hard to imagine a more persuasive performance of this work. The playing of the four string players was outstandingly good, rich in expression, technical confidence and competence. Clearly the opportunity to play several performances of the work had caused the instrumentalists to become thoroughly immersed in and comfortable with Schoenberg’s ultra late-Romantic style. And of course Barbara Hannigan is a renowned interpreter in this kind of musical genre. Her contributions to the third and last movement were not only grateful to the ear and technically astonishing, but above all she created a compelling dramatic presence, both aurally and visually. It was a wonderful finale to an evening that had looked a little skimpy on paper, but proved to be most enjoyable and full of interest.

Alan Sanders

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