Playfulness and panache from Barbara Hannigan and the LSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Copland, Haydn, Offenbach, Weill: Barbara Hannigan (soprano/conductor), Fleur Barron (mezzo-soprano), London Symphony Orchestra. Barbican Hall, London, 17.2.2022. (CS)

Barbara Hannigan conducts the LSO (c) Mark Allan

CoplandMusic for the Theatre
Haydn – Symphony No.90 in C major
Offenbach – Selections from La Gaîté Parisienne (arr. Rosenthal)
Weill – ‘Youkali’, ‘Lost in the Stars’ (arr. Elliott)

Storm Eunice was coming, we were warned.  The British Isles were about to be battered by life-threatening gusts and floods, and everyone was advised to bunker down and batten down the hatches.  But Eunice was in fact preceded by an unanticipated whirlwind, unleashed as Barbara Hannigan’s baton went down in front of the London Symphony Orchestra, in the first concert of her February residency with the orchestra at Barbican Hall.

Copland and Weill, Offenbach and Haydn?  The links were not immediately obvious, but it quickly became clear that the cohering principle was ‘showmanship’ … and Hannigan’s own as much as any of the composers’ dash and dynamism.

Copland’s jazz-fuelled Music for the Theatre was written not long after the composer had returned from Paris, where he’d been studying with Nadia Boulanger, and the suite surely represents Copland’s ambition to find a distinctly ‘American’ voice.  Rather than Appalachian Spring’s ‘sounds of the open prairie’, though, Music for the Theatre dances to the beat of the Jazz Age, and the propulsive punch of the LSO’s rhythms suggested that Hannigan, who can evidently add ‘dancer’ to her long list of accomplishments, would be right at home among Gatsby’s party guests, jiving to a ‘pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos and low and high drums’ as they played ‘yellow cocktail music’.

The composer Roy Harris described the bold brassy riffs as ‘whorehouse music’, but while the colours were bright, and the sound-world at times clamorous, there was nothing brash or vulgar about this performance, which oozed confidence but didn’t swagger.  The languorous moments in the ‘Prologue’ breathed easily, while the trumpets’ rasps had an affectionate warmth.  Some terrific clarinet playing conveyed the shameless chutzpah of the ‘Dance’.  The double basses stomped through the ‘Burlesque’, down bows digging in deep, while the solo trumpet teased and frolicked above.  If Hannigan made the party go with a swing, then she also valued the evocative ‘time-outs’, when Copland slips from rowdy playfulness to melancholy-tinged nostalgia.  The ‘Intermezzo’ was lovely, the cor anglais and oboe cushioned by soft strings, and though the volume was lowered and the vibe languid, Hannigan never let the rhythmic heartbeat of the music weaken.

The London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Barbara Hannigan (c) Mark Allan

The playful high spirits continued in Haydn’s Symphony No.90 in C major.  Hannigan somehow drove her hands upwards to create the downbeat that triggers the grand rhetorical statement at the start of the introductory Adagio but the strange gesture worked, and the ensuing Allegro flew, the dialogues swinging excitedly back and forth, the woodwind textures lucid, and the details of the development section well-knitted together.  I loved the way Hannigan really did shift meter for the hemiolas – they didn’t work ‘against’ the dominant beat, but slipped in between it, recalling Copland’s jazzy mischief.   Daniel Jemison’s bassoon solo in the Andante theme and variations had a quasi-ironic elegance that was winningly judged, and the ornaments of the repeat were subtle and suave.  Flautist Claire Wickes was supported by neat, precise string playing, and cellist Rebecca Gilliver brought a measured dash of Romantic warmth to the theme in the solo quartet episode.  Hannigan shaped the Menuetto discerningly, skilfully controlling the dynamics and ambience in the Trio, the latter coloured by a beautiful oboe solo.  The Finale: Allegro assai raced along until it reached the ‘false ending’, which fooled the punters, as always, earning them an arch glare from Hannigan.  When the second joke arrived, she quitted the podium and left leader Carmine Lauri to steer the strings’ hurtling scales to the finish line – a dangerous move perhaps, given that the precision and panache of the coda might have suggested that a conductor was a redundant indulgence.

Fleur Barron and Barbara Hannigan (c) Mark Allan

Such thoughts would have been pushed roughly aside in the second half, though, in which Hannigan whisked us off to Paris, arriving in the 1930s by way of the Belle Époque, and then whirled onwards to Broadway.  The LSO had a ball in Offenbach’s La Gaîté Parisienne, a pasticcio ballet of Jacques Offenbach’s greatest hits which was commissioned by choreographer Léonid Massine for the Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo, and premiered in 1938, and put together by the French conductor-composer, Manuel Rosenthal.  Rosenthal’s arrangements serve a libretto by Count Etienne de Beaumont which evokes Parisian nightlife around 1900.  This performance might have been subtitled ‘I could have danced all night’ as we sashayed from Polka to Waltz to March to Cancan.  It was all rather high-octane – a little breezy insouciance wouldn’t have gone amiss at times – but from piccolo to percussion, the musicians were evidently enjoying themselves.  And, there was an interlude of sultry sensuousness, when mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron joined Hannigan in Hoffmann’s Barcarolle, their voices glossy and gleaming respectively – a sumptuously satisfying blend indeed.

And so, from the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens to the cabaret.  The exiled Kurt Weill found himself in Paris in the 1930s and it’s no surprise to find him expressing a longing for a utopia such as ‘Youkali’ – ‘a place where your desires are known and fulfilled, a place of bliss, where one is free from care’.  The song forms part of the incidental music that Weill wrote in 1934 for Jacques Deval’s play, Marie Galante.  Turning to face the audience, Hannigan sang with apt nostalgic languor, capturing the otherworldly intangibility of the idyllic isle, her curving hand and arm gestures enticing the LSO into the rapt sway of the tango-habanera, as realised in Bill Elliott’s sweet, refined orchestral arrangement.  ‘Lost in the Stars’ is the titular song from the musical (based on Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country) that Weill wrote with Maxwell Anderson and which opened on Broadway in 1949.  It tells of the protagonist Stephen Kumalo’s crisis of faith.  In Hannigan’s hands it surely found its way.  The only misstep was that in these two Weill songs Hannigan’s soprano was amplified, which both upset the balance and weakened the sincerity.  But, these songs need a true singing-actor and if anyone can summon the necessary theatrical pizzazz, then Hannigan can.

Claire Seymour

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