Barbara Hannigan: Vienna fin de siècle (Alpha-classics)
★★★★ (out of five)
In an avalanche of theme albums — it’s what record execs dream up these days instead of fresh talent — the Canadian diva’s release feels like she really means it. Not the cover picture, which shows her snogging some bloke in the woods, but the content, which embraces songs by Schoenberg, Webern, Zemlinsky, Berg and Hugo Wolf, with one politically correct aberration whom we’ll come to in a moment.
Four early songs by Schoenberg, opus 2, are so close to Mahler they feel sentimental to the point of self-indulgence. Webern’s plinks are saved from the nuthouse by Reinbert de Leeuw’s warm accompaniment while Berg’s early songs, dated 1907, are Wozzeck in embryo, delicately revealing. Zemlinsky, the best songwriter of the lot, is still very much in Brahms mode in the late 1890s, leading us to speculate where he might have gone had Schoenberg not married his sister and dragged him off the rails. Wolf is Wolf, meat and drink for a good soprano.
What Alma Mahler is doing in this exalted set has nothing to do with her music, which is either simplistic, derivative or downright imitative of her teacher Zemlinsky, who may have held her hand in the process as they were all but in bed at the time. Alma admits in her private diaries that she had no faith in her music, so why should we?
Hannigan, 47 and fearless, has just the right blend of solemnity and vivacity for this oversexed epoch. I have never heard the Schoenberg songs better sung. They are either musical foreplay or a feral warning of fearsome things to come.