Barbara Hannigan Makes a Diverse Programme Cohere Through Musicianship and Sheer Personality

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ligeti, Haydn, Berg, Gershwin (arr. Hannigan and Elliot): Barbara Hannigan (soprano/conductor), London Symphony Orchestra, Barbican Hall, London, 17.3.2019. (CS)

Barbara Hannigan (c) Elmer de Haas
Barbara Hannigan (c) Elmer de Haas

LigetiConcert Românesc (1951)
Haydn – Symphony No.86 in D major Hob I:86
BergLulu, Suite
Gershwin (arr. Hannigan and Elliott) – Girl Crazy, Suite

Ligeti and Haydn?  Berg and Gershwin?  On paper, the London Symphony Orchestra’s programme for this Barbican Hall concert looked a bit like a Chinese menu.  And, for all the arguments proposed by Paul Griffiths in his programme note about an ethnic affinity underlying the relationship between Ligeti’s Concert Românesc and the fifth of Haydn’s six ‘Paris’ symphonies – Ligeti grew up in a region of eastern Hungary that was ceded to Romania after World War I, while Haydn spent most of his career working for the Esterházys in the west of Hungary – I didn’t detect a sense of shared national identity informing these works.  Nor was I convinced that Berg’s Lulu is a ‘deity with innumerable avatars’, popping up in the form of ‘pure voice’ (in Berio’s Sequenza III) or the Arizona postmistress, Molly Gray, who wins the heart of New York playboy, Danny Churchill in Gershwin’s 1930 musical, Crazy Girl.

That said, this concert was surprisingly, and persuasively, cohesive, the four disparate works bound by the sheer strength of character and driving energy of soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan.  The sheen of her soprano seems to ripple with the same kinetic and expressive currents that infuse her presence on the podium, propelling the music forwards with a hypnotic, unstoppable momentum.  While Hannigan’s conducting is not overly fussy it’s enormously communicative; she seems to hold each and every individual musician directly in her gaze.  And, the results are highly engaging.  Her movements have a surprisingly muscularity, too; a force that has its origins in the core of her spine and is propelled with precision through, by turn, punchy and broadly sweeping gestures.  When she turns to the audience to sing – her lithe, silvery soprano soaring effortlessly – while continuing to gesticulate to the orchestra behind her, ‘force of nature’ seems a wholly inadequate description.

The concert began with Ligeti’s Concert Românesc, which was written in 1951 and makes use of transcriptions that the composer made of Romanian folksongs in Bucharest in 1949.  The unison melody which commences the Andantino was eloquently shaped and expressively deepened by the introduction of darker bass voices; indeed, throughout the suite Hannigan drew every drop of colour from Ligeti’s brilliant orchestration.  After the tight and vibrant rhythms of the Allegro vivace, lovely solos from horn and woodwind in the Adagio ma no troppo injected a note of nostalgia, a gentle ‘ache’ tinging the expressive elegance.  And, if the spirits of Bartók and Kodály hovered over the first three movements, then the Presto swirled and raced in anticipation of the music of Ligeti’s later years.

After Ligeti’s suite, some of the LSO musicians decamped from the stage leaving a smaller ensemble to perform Haydn’s Symphony No.86, one of six symphonies commissioned by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the music director of the orchestra the Concert de la Loge Olympique, on behalf of its sponsor, Count Claude d’Ogny.  That said, Haydn employs a fairly large orchestra here, with two trumpets and percussion added to double flutes, oboes, bassoons and horns, and Hannigan drew rich and plush sounds from her players.  Indeed, although Haydn almost seems to be holding the symphonic conventions of his day at one remove with characteristic wit and self-irony – we have a noble slow introduction, a slow movement titled Capriccio, a stately minuet (surely not, as Griffiths states, a ‘scherzo’?) and a spirited romp of a finale – this performance seemed to me to be more Romantic than Classical.  Hannigan didn’t over-emphasise details such as dynamic contrasts but did bring forth the rhythmic currents streaming through the orchestra and such movement as is generated by contrasts of instrumental colour.  Though energised by some bright trumpet and horn playing, the Adagio introduction was surprisingly relaxed: I didn’t sense a tension waiting to be released, or a grandiose dignity, but thankfully, too, there was no undue heaviness and the introduction slipped easily into an Allegro spiritoso which bubbled merrily but might have been tauter with regard to ensemble.  If there was anything ‘lacking’ from Hannigan’s Haydn then perhaps it was an appreciation of the ‘whole’; deft gestures brought forth details with naturalness, but the harmonic architecture of the whole was less prominently articulated.  The movements followed each other swiftly, and I felt there was need for a longer, deeper breath before the Capriccio: Largo, in which, however, the strings played with beautiful tone and expansive phrasing.  Similarly, the pause at the end of the penultimate phrase of the Menuetto was slight, when a lengthier hiatus might have added a touch of wryness before the reedy folksiness of the Trio.  Fast and furious were the watchwords for the Finale, which had plenty of stamp and fire.

In Haydn’s day it would have been common for a composer or soloist to ‘conduct’ a symphony or concerto from the leader’s chair or soloist’s platform, and the practice is not unfamiliar, if less common, today.  But, the sight and sound of a singer simultaneously conducting a large orchestra, as Hannigan did in the second half of the concert, still takes some getting used to.  Berg’s Lulu Suite and Bill Elliott’s Bergian arrangement of songs from Gershwin’s Crazy Girl are among the works which comprise Crazy Girl Crazy, Hannigan’s 2017 recording (on the Alpha label) which garnered an array of accolades and awards including BBC Music Magazine’s Recording of the Month (December 2017) and the 2018 Grammy for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album (MusicWeb International review).

Hannigan clearly has an innate feeling for the combination of mysterious nuance, voluptuous richness and strained intensity which characterises the music of Berg and other ‘late-Romantic Expressionists’ whose works are steeped in a strange blend of delicacy and decadence.  She’s a lauded Lulu on the opera stage, and her latest release, Vienna: Fin de siècle, which presents music by Wolf, Alma Mahler, Zemlinsky, Schoenberg and Webern, has just won the 2019 Juno Award for Classical Album of the Year (vocal or choral), such as was bestowed on Crazy Girl Crazy last year (review).

If I suggest that Hannigan did not impose her own interpretative stamp on Berg’s Lulu Suite, then that’s because she simply let the music speak for itself.  This was a performance in which intellectual analysing was less apparent than instinctive and deeply committed feeling – a physical and emotional immersion in the score.  With assured direction, she guided the multifarious elements which form the mists at the start of Berg’s Rondo: Andante und Hymne with lovely fluidity, the LSO strings eddying enigmatically and expressively, their textures tender but full.  The flash of brass anger in the Ostinato: Allegro wrenched us from such mysteries, though the harp provided a consoling lyricism.  There was equally troubling violence bristling in the fourth movement variations, in which the threatening double basses and percussion were complemented by wrestling counterpoint in the strings.

Hannigan has commented on her almost painful identification with Lulu in performance, remarking in an interview with Tom Service that, ‘There’s a little bit of Lulu in everything I do now.  […]  She totally eats you up and spits you out.  She takes you over … I don’t interpret the music.  I just have to be it, I just have to be Lulu.’  The soprano’s unflinching commitment was instantly apparent when, in ‘Lulu’s Lied’, she turned to the audience and gave herself entirely to Lulu’s rhapsody, her silvery soprano somehow conveying both a febrile intensity and simple innocence.  But, is it possible to be simultaneously unreservedly ‘in role’ and to stand outside that role as an objective director of the musical arguments which embrace, support and counter that voice?  As Lulu poured out her confession to her husband, Hannigan’s physical gestures to the orchestra behind her were at odds with the meaning of her words.  Singing Countess Gerschwitz’s brief plea, ‘Lulu! My Angel! Let me see you again!’, in the final movement, Hannigan did not turn her gaze to the audience in the Hall.  The result was a strange and troubling disembodiment of the voice – perhaps this was precisely what Hannigan intended.

I found Hannigan’s adoption of dual roles less unsettling in the final Gershwin songs.  Abandoning her baton, the movements of hand and body were now part of the assumed persona – arising from the song and dance rather than existing alongside it.  She and Bill Elliott have injected some post-Romantic harmonic angst and complexity into these songs, along with some Bergian instrumental lushness, and the result is entirely convincing.  Hannigan lightened her voice, saving the operatic ‘weight’ for melodic peaks of heightened intensity (though I was not persuaded that amplification was necessary), and performed with freedom and winning flair.  The rhythmic slippages of ‘Embraceable You’ were deliciously sinuous and sweet, and the gentlemen of the LSO proved themselves dulcet songsters too.  ‘I Got Rhythm’ closed with an astonishing vocal glissando which arced with power and grace from the depths to the starry spheres – a glossy, visceral cry of absolute joy.

The capacity Barbican Hall audience gave Hannigan an ecstatic reception, leaping instantly to their feet.  It was impossible not to smile.

Claire Seymour

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