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Subtle artistry on display

Koerner Hall
11/10/2017 -  
Arnold Schoenberg: Vier Lieder, op. 2
Anton Webern: Fünf Lieder nacht Gedichte von Richard Dehmel
Alban Berg: Sieben Frühe Lieder
Alexander Zemlinsky: Seven Songs from op. 2, 5 & 7
Alma Mahler: Die stille Stadt – Laue Sommernacht – Ich wandle unter Blumen – Licht in der Nacht
Hugo Wolf: "Mignon Lieder" from Goethe Lieder

Barbara Hannigan (soprano), Reinbert de Leeuw (piano)

B. Hannigan (© Raphaël Brand)

The truly outstanding feature of this recital was the apparent total identification of both performers with the songs performed. Barbara Hannigan and Reinbert de Leeuw have been collaborating for 20 years now and have truly honed a repertoire that demands ultimate finesse. De Leeuw’s accompaniment is subtle, delicate, self-effacing totally without mannerism, almost laconic - yet imbued with sensitive support.

I usually prefer variety in a song recital, but this program consisted of works all composed by people in their twenties in just one city, Vienna, between 1888 (Hugo Wolf) and 1908 (Anton Webern). The result is very intense experience of a period of flux (torment even) as the extroverted romanticism of the 19th century gave way to a period of introspection and symbolist impressionism. The texts contain imagery of night, moonlight, dark shimmering and, most of all, Sehnsucht (yearning). And most of this yearning seems fated to be unfulfilled.

(Alma Mahler’s works are hard to date accurately. She studied in 1990-01 with Zemlinsky, then her husband persuaded her to give up composing. Her songs were published some years later, but seem to date from her period of study as they so closely reflect her teacher’s style.)

The grouping of the songs was non-chronological, with the 20th century works heard before the 19th century works. The opening half (Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg) gave a foreshadowing of artistic shifts to come, especially the five Webern songs which have more than a hint of atonality and of his own influential minimalism.

It was interesting to take a jump back in time for the second half, which also gave an opportunity for a dramatic finish with the four “Mignon Lieder” of Hugo Wolf. Even then, the final song, “Kennst du das Land?”, with its repeated cry of “Dahin!” (“Tis there!”) foreshadows the Sehnsucht.

The songs weren’t all shadow and gloom, however. Schoenberg’s “Erhebung” (“Elevation”), for example, takes us “above the clouds into the sun”. Alban Berg’s “Die Nachtigall” (“The Nightingale”) is another song with a more optimistic upwelling at the end.

The near-capacity audience listened raptly. There was no encore - it would have been redundant.

It has been a busy few days for Barbara Hannigan in Toronto. Aside from giving a master class, she also received an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, the University of Toronto, as did her voice teacher, Mary Morrison. She and de Leeuw then take this program to Washington, New York, and Philadelphia.

Michael Johnson



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