Barbara Hannigan sings Berg and Gershwin at the Barbican Hall

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 Rom‚nesc 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 Verkl‰rte 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
BartÛk, even to Strauss. BartÛkian ‘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 Rom‚nesc; 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.

product_title=Barbara Hannigan and the LSO at the Barbican Hall
product_by=A review by Mark Berry