Barbara Hannigan wasn’t born in Toronto — her hometown is Waverley, Nova Scotia — but she studied here at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto. Her most important voice teacher was Mary Morrison, widow of composer Harry Freedman, and a fine artist in her own right. Hannigan recently returned to Toronto for a highly-praised recital at Koerner Hall.
At the age of 47, Canadian soprano Hannigan has emerged as an international star. For some years now she has been attracting attention for her extraordinary performances in contemporary operas such as Berg’s Lulu, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten, and Louis Andriessen’s Writing to Vermeer. But her breakthrough moment came in 2015 when she both sang and conducted an excerpt from Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre. As a technical feat, it was phenomenal, but it was also a dramatic tour de force. Don’t take my word for it; have a look for yourself (Accentus Music DVD ACC 20327).
Now here she is singing and conducting the music of Berio and Berg but also excerpts from Gershwin’s 1930 Broadway musical Girl Crazy. Hannigan made her mark as a contemporary music specialist, but she can really do it all. She has recorded a Handel opera, she regularly sings Mozart, and here she is with some Gershwin show tunes. Is there nothing this artist can’t do? No doubt about it, she is a risk-taker. But so far she has emerged from the challenges not only unscathed but triumphant.
Luciano Berio’s Sequenza III was written in 1965 for Cathy Berberian (1925-1983). It is arguably less about music than about sound, all manner of extraordinary vocal utterances that had never been heard before. Berberian was a specialist in avant-garde music and was willing to try anything. This piece inspired other composers to start thinking outside the box as to what could be produced by the human voice. Berberian was a mezzo-soprano, and so Hannigan has transposed the piece up to her higher range. She is clearly the Cathy Berberian of her generation, and she makes Sequenza III a dazzling display of vocal pyrotechnics.
Hannigan is also one of the great Lulus of her generation as is clearly evident in her complete recording of the opera (Bel Air Classiques DVD BAC 109). But here she conducts the suite from the opera and sings Lulu’s song as well as Countess Gershwitz’s few lines after Lulu has been murdered by Jack the Ripper. The only thing she doesn’t do is provide the famous scream at the very moment Lulu is killed; she lets the orchestra play one of the most blood-curdling chords in music on its own – and that is quite enough.
The Ludwig Orchestra — named after Beethoven — was formed in the Netherlands in 2013 as a new music collective. It was designed to be flexible in size from a handful of musicians to a full symphony orchestra and to play music from all periods and styles. Clearly, on the basis of this recording, they have no trouble turning on a dime from Berg to Gershwin. Berg’s Lulu Suite is dense and difficult music to play and to balance. Hannigan navigates her way through this contrapuntal labyrinth with total mastery, and her musicians play superbly.
Hannigan has written her own notes for this album and makes the case that Lulu and Girl Crazy have a lot in common:
I imagine the opening words of the Girl Crazy Suite to be sung by the lonely Geschwitz. And indeed, the entire Girl Crazy Suite serves as a companion to the Lulu Suite in its journey through the highs and lows of life and love.
Hannigan also reminds us that both Lulu and Girl Crazy were being written at the same time, in 1929-30. More than that, Gershwin had met Berg in Vienna in 1928! Against this background and given Hannigan’s thoughts about the two composers, it is not surprising that Hannigan asked Bill Elliott to do the arrangements for a Girl Crazy Suite and to include excerpts from Lulu as well as allusions to music by Mahler, Kurt Weill, Gyorgy Ligeti and the late Canadian composer Claude Vivier. Needless to say, these are not your standard pop concert arrangements of Gershwin show tunes. There is lots of dissonance and plenty of quirky rhythms in these arrangements, and while the quotations from other composers are mostly subtle and well embedded, what emerges is a highly original take on familiar songs like “But Not for Me,” “Embraceable You,” and “I Got Rhythm.”
Once again Hannigan has a great feeling for this kind of music. The orchestra plays with style and gusto and Hannigan tosses off the high-flying vocal parts with ease. And the Ludwig Orchestra further demonstrates its own versatility in performing as a chorus in “Embraceable You.”
I am not at all surprised that this album has been nominated for a Grammy. This is fresh and authoritative music-making from one of the most gifted performers of our time. Nor am I surprised that Hannigan and the Ludwig Orchestra are on a European tour this month with a version of the same program captured on this CD/DVD combination.
As for the DVD, it is short — it runs only about 20 minutes — but it offers an extended look at Hannigan and the Ludwig Orchestra in rehearsal for this album. We all know by now that Barbara Hannigan is a soprano of unique vocal and dramatic ability. After watching these rehearsal sequences, there can be no doubt that Hannigan is also a gifted and charismatic conductor.
Incidentally, Hannigan has recently recorded another version of “Mysteries of the Macabre” from Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, this time with Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO DVD 3028). On the same album, she is also heard in “Three Fragments” from Berg’s Wozzeck.
Note: a slightly different version of this review was published recently by Classical Voice North America.
Ludwig van Toronto
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