From Darkness to Light: Barbara Hannigan opens the LSO’s new season at the Barbican

The London Symphony Orchestra was the first of the major orchestras to open their autumn season in September. Unlike their brethren across the Thames (to the south), they chose not a big choral work – no Mahler or Verdi – nor, in fact, their incoming music director, Antonio Pappano to open it. Instead, the Canadian soprano-conductor Barbara Hannigan chose a program of Ligeti, Claude Vivier, Haydn, Luigi Nono and Richard Strauss.

Hannigan is a conductor who clearly enjoys risk – even if it is at the LSO’s expense. In that sense she reminds me of Claudio Abbado who would similarly lace his LSO programs with challenging repertoire – Ferneyhough and Tchaikovsky one of the most notorious – but there is clearly something different with how Hannigan does it. There is abundant love for the music she conducts and programs, and, in the case of Claude Vivier, a genuine desire to rehabilitate a forgotten genius of the late twentieth century. Moreover, the performances she gets from the LSO are pristine and they are passionate; this is considerably more than can be said of the messy performance of Brian Ferneyhough’s La terre est un homme from Abbado’s inaugural LSO concert in this very hall.

If the LPO had shouldered a lot of the Ligeti centenary at the BBC Proms, the LSO here took on his 1968-69 string work Ramifications. It is almost an orchestral counterpart to Lux aeterna – itself a radiant-sounding piece of music that ends in complete transparency having gone through a gyroscope of vocal sound to get there. Ramifications is music that has fluency but has no rhythm; it is thick but light. One group of strings is tuned a quarter tone higher than the second group but, sat together, as a single arrangement of strings, they try to retune each other. Even if the music sounds as if it might be coming from two sources, Ligeti actually wants the audience to feel this “mistuned” music is coming from a single source. Hannigan got from the LSO strings playing of magnificent clarity – a kind of glacial lightness that moved into veil-like transparency, and a precision that made the tone shifts super-sharp. There might be no rhythm here, but what was here was almost mathematically drawn out.

Hannigan has previously programmed Claude Vivier’s Lonely Child with the LSO, a work heavily weighed down by the composer’s early upbringing in an orphanage and his “hollowed identity” which haunted him for almost his entire life. Wo bist du Licht!, Vivier’s altogether darker vocal work, written a year later than Lonely Child in 1981, I find less orchestrally powerful – but perhaps more vocally searing. Both works share a shattering percussiveness, an explosive anger: much you hear in Vivier’s music seems to disseminate from his childhood, his adolescence, even if it’s subconsciously.

The orchestra is smaller than the one used in Lonely Child, but no less devastating. But what is more unusual is the way in which Vivier sets the text for the mezzo-soprano (again, the darker voice which shadows the bleaker, duskier tones of the orchestral sound). The question ‘Wo bist du Licht!’ – which is implied through the work is extinguished – comes from Friedrich Hölderlin’s Der blinder Sänger. Against this, Vivier uses tape to overlay a recording of Martin Luther King’s last speech and one in situ of Robert Kennedy’s assassination. The second use of text is an inversion. The mezzo sings in an invented – and unpunctuated – language, which has no particular significance (dai ko Zè toi so vo yo mè la go oua ri nè you za…) whilst the recording of a male voice now takes over the Hölderin ode. The third – and most descriptive – text is about torture, its power derived from the lack of tone given to its narration. Just as Hölderin’s ode returns with a blind man remembering “green terrain” and those who encountered him the tape returns with the sounds of earthquakes and thunder. There is never comfort in this music – never the light that Vivier seeks.

Barbara Hannigan conducts the LSO (c) Mark Allan

The mezzo-soprano, Fleur Barron was completely inside this music. There was nothing lacking in the power of the voice, or her sensitivity of phrasing. Nor her imaginative approach to the “invented” text, which had a childlike simplicity to it but a convincing sense of it being abstract rather than real. To Vivier’s question of Hölderin’s ode – Wo bist du Licht! – Barron’s burnished, gold-blushed tone offered not a ray of hope but a deep, slow snuffing out of the candle of the light. Barbara Hannigan is enormously compelling in this music – containing dynamics beautifully so the voice was never overwhelmed by the orchestra (although this is a more subtle score than Lonely Child). I think the tapes, via two speakers, might have been a fraction too loud (although this might have been less of an issue from the centre of the stalls). Otherwise, the performance was a superb one. We need to hear more Vivier from Hannigan (the incomplete, but magnificent, Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele and Zipangu, for example).

The first half closed out with a lithe, buoyant performance of Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No.26 – the ‘Lamentatione’. Hannigan had a somewhat swift, balletic grip on the orchestra in the outer movements – especially a third which simply danced its way through the closing pages.

Luigi Nono would become one of the most political of late twentieth century composers – and his Djamila Boupacha, for solo soprano, is one of his most devastatingly uncompromising works with a political purpose. Djamila Boupacha was a young Algerian activist who was captured and tortured and, who while awaiting trial, opened a case against her torturers. Simone de Beauvoir, in an article printed in Le Monde in June 1960, took up her case and it helped turn public opinion in France against the country’s determination to hold on to Algeria. Nono’s words for his work came from a poem written by the Spanish poet Jesús López Pacheco and it became one of the composer’s great works of protest. It is for unaccompanied voice – giving the work even more power – and Barbara Hannigan sang it from the conductor’s rostrum simply ringed by a halo of light. It’s post-serial in tone, but the voice is astonishingly pure in almost everything you hear. It suited Hannigan’s rich, but expressive voice to perfection – but this is also a voice with unique emotion to it. That returning theme of this concert – darkness that moves to light – was captured beautifully. The note lengths seemed to make Hannigan’s voice cascade like a darkening shadow from its highest range – the vision almost searingly bright at the other end of the scale as it opened up from dark shade. This was a deeply affecting performance, grippingly done.

There was no pause as Hannigan moved straight into Richard Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung. I found the performance a little strange at first; one that seemed to lack that most Straussian of things, the single line of thought. Hannigan’s tendency to flip between tempi – and either very broad ones or very swift ones – made this particular hero very indecisive when in fact he knows precisely where he’s going. Hannigan has, I think, a vague beat and with it comes a tendency for detail to be lacking in Romantic repertoire like Strauss; but whatever shortcomings we got in terms of colour and phrasing, there was no denying she got the LSO to play with explosiveness and a sweeping fervour. Brass were Herculean and the timpani thunderous.  This came at some expense of a rich tone in the strings, however – which may, or may not, be Hannigan’s preference. I suspect her more lucid, more harrowing approach to Strauss – and the more lithe approach to Haydn earlier – suggests she prefers a less sonorous LSO than some other conductors do. If by the end of the coda I felt just slightly uncertain a full transfiguration of our hero had really occurred then it was of degree rather than of outright failure. Unusual Strauss for sure, but compelling nevertheless.

Recorded for future broadcast on Marquee TV from 12 October 2023

Marc Bridle

György Ligeti – Ramifications, Claude Vivier – Wo bist du Licht!, Joseph Haydn – Symphony No.26, Luigi Nono – Djamila Boupacha, Richard Strauss – Tod und Verklärung

Fleur Barron (mezzo-soprano), London Symphony Orchestra, Barbara Hannigan (conductor & soprano)

Barbican Centre, London; 14th September 2023

ABOVE: Barbara Hannigan conducts the LSO (c) Mark Allan