How’s that for a banner week! Netherlands-based Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan flew into town this week, received a well deserved honourary doctorate Wednesday, at the convocation ceremony of her alma mater, University of Toronto. That same evening, she gave a memorable masterclass at the Royal Conservatory of Music. I was fortunate to be at the jammed Mazzoleni Hall of the Royal Conservatory of Music, where she put four singers through their paces. I’ve attended hundreds of masterclasses as an observer over five decades, and I can honestly say that Hannigan was one of the most generous and giving of teachers I’ve ever witnessed.
The pinnacle of her return to Toronto was the extraordinary Liederabend Friday evening, featuring songs by composers of the Second Viennese School and their contemporaries. Given the predominantly conservative North American audience when it comes to musical tastes, Berg, Schönberg and Webern are not exactly hot sellers in the concert halls. It was all the more amazing that Koerner Hall was virtually full, a testament to the reputation of the soloist. Hannigan is arguably the most important soprano champion of new music of the current generation, having premiered some 80 contemporary works, many written specifically for her voice.
In anticipation of her Toronto visit, I asked her several questions about her career, and specifically about her affinity for new music. To be sure, the Koerner recital program is decidedly not “new music.” All the pieces are over a century old. That said, the composers of the Second Viennese School were trailblazers in their time, famous for their singularly unique style and novel harmonic language. But the songs chosen are early works, without the often angular and astringent qualities that define their later compositions. Through it all, one could hear the vestiges of Late Romantic sensibilities in these pieces.
Among the Koerner audiences were many singers, voice teachers, music students, and discerning art song lovers. The audience discipline was exemplary – not a stray applause to be heard, everyone in rapt attention, so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Hannigan began with early Schönberg, his Vier Lieder, op. 2. Composed at the turn of the Century, it’s stylistically Late Romantic and totally tonal and accessible. From the very beginning, Hannigan and de Leeuw established an impressionistic, dream-like aura, which was sustained throughout the 90-minute recital.
Hannigan sang with supreme delicacy, with her trademark silvery tone, in an unhurried, languid manner, the phrasing always fluid, the tone caressing. It created a mesmerizing, otherworldly effect. I was struck by how lyrical everything sounded, as if she’s singing Bellini, not Zemlinsky! The highly Expressionist texts of these songs, dealing with night, sleep, dreams, soul, secret longings, silence, etc., are ideally suited to this quiet, understated treatment. If you can imagine Mélisande singing Berg, Schonberg and Zemlinsky, then you’ll have an idea what the atmosphere was like!
To be sure, the pianist Reinbert de Leeuw played a big part in sustaining the magic. The Steinway lid was opened “full-stick”, yet the sound from the piano was much dampened by his use of the soft pedal. De Leeuw’s masterful playing was a model of sensitivity, his lightness of touch matching the singer note for note. Even in the more dramatic songs — and there weren’t all that many – she was never covered. The tempo was slow, even languid. It appeared that this impressionistic approach was not to everyone’s taste, as I did hear a grumble or two at intermission, about a certain stylistic sameness, even monotony, in the delivery.
A fair comment, but then this program is not designed for contrasting styles. In my book, the singularity of mood is actually an inspired stroke. To achieve the dream-like, mesmerizing atmosphere, there was perhaps a certain glossing over of some of the more dramatic peaks and valleys. Sometimes in her effort to achieve a certain dramatic effect, her enunciation of the German text was not ideally crisp. But through it all, her beautifully focused, gleaming tone was a total pleasure. Berg’s Sieben Frühe Lieder, taken at a very slow tempo, never sounded more beautiful or more alluring. Her “Die Nachtigall” has taken its place in my memory bank permanently.
The second half opened with songs by Alexander Zemlinsky, and his student (and the love of his life) Alma Schindler, aka Alma Mahler. The Zemlinsky pieces are wonderful, songs that we just don’t get to hear often enough in recitals these days. Hannigan was at her scintillating best. Particularly lovely was “Irmelin Rose” Op. 7, no. 4. The way she pushed and pulled on the words: “Irmelin Rose, Irmelin Sonne, Irmelin alles, was schön ist!” — nobody, and I mean nobody does it better. Alma Mahler was Zemlinsky’s student, and you can really hear his influence in her songs. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as they say!
The recital ended with four Mignon Songs by Hugo Wolf. Wolf composed many, something like 50 songs based on Goethe’s text, and it’s a real treat that Hannigan chose “Kennst du das Land” to end the recital. It is said that there are something like 58 settings of the Goethe text, the most popular ones are by Schumann, Liszt, and Wolf. There’s even one by Beethoven. The Liszt was number one in my book for years, but with time, the more subtle melodies of the Wolf setting really grew on me. Hannigan sang it exquisitely, a perfect way to end this most satisfying of recitals.
The extremely well-behaved audience — albeit with a few coughers — erupted into huge ovations. Totally deserved for both the soprano and the pianist. Lots of callbacks, but no encore. After giving her all in 31 songs, I don’t think we could blame her!
I urge everyone to watch the archived live stream on the RCM website. For me, this was the highlight of the still young 2017-18 vocal season.