Is There Nothing This Canadian Artist Can’t Do?

Barbara Hannigan goes once again outside the box: Is there nothing this artist can’t do? (Photo by Elmer de Haas)

Crazy Girl Crazy. Berio: Sequenza III. Berg: Lulu Suite. Gershwin: Girl Crazy Suite (arr. Bill Elliott & Barbara Hannigan). CD with bonus DVD: Music is Music, a film by Mathieu Amalric. Barbara Hannigan, soprano & conductor. Ludwig Orchestra. Alpha Classics 293. Total Time: 57:23.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW – At 47, Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan is an international star. 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 have brought her considerable attention over the years. Then, in 2015, when she sang and conducted – not only a phenomenal technical feat, but also a dramatic tour de force – an excerpt from Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre, she had what one might call a real “breakthrough” moment. Don’t take my word for it; check it out yourself (Accentus Music DVD ACC 20327).

Hannigan’s latest DVD smartly mixes Berg, Berio and Broadway.

On her latest DVD, Hannigan sings and conducts the music of Berio and Berg and also excerpts from Gershwin’s 1930 Broadway musical, Girl Crazy. Who knew Hannigan was such a pro at show tunes? Is there nothing this artist can’t do? No doubt about it, she is a risk-taker; thus far, she has emerged from all the challenges she has given herself not only unscathed, but triumphant.

Luciano Berio’s Sequenza III, written in 1965 for Cathy Berberian (1925-83), is arguably less about music than about sound involving all manner of extraordinary vocal utterances that had never been heard before. Berberian was a specialist in avant-garde music who was willing to try anything. This piece inspired other composers to start thinking “outside the box” as to what sounds could be produced by the human voice. As Berberian was a mezzo-soprano, Hannigan has transposed the piece up to her soprano range. Clearly the Cathy Berberian of her generation, Hannigan offers, in Sequenza III, a dazzling display of vocal pyrotechnics. [Sample an audio clip below.]

Hannigan is one of the great Lulus of her generation. (P.P.Hoffmann, La Monnaie)

Hannigan, one of the great Lulus of her generation (Bel Air Classiques DVD BAC 109), on this Accentus Music release conducts the suite from the opera and sings Lulu’s song as well as Countess Geshwitz’s few lines after Lulu has been murdered by Jack the Ripper. The only thing she doesn’t provide is the famous scream at the very moment Lulu is killed; instead, she lets the orchestra play one of the most blood-curdling chords in music on its own – certainly sufficiently chilling!

The Ludwig Orchestra (named after Beethoven), formed in the Netherlands in 2013 as a new music collective, was designed to be flexible in size – ranging from a handful of musicians to a full symphony orchestra – and to play music from all periods and styles. On the basis of this recording, they clearly 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 and her musicians navigate their way through this contrapuntal labyrinth with total mastery.

Hannigan’s own notes for this album make the case that Lulu and Girl Crazy have a lot in common:

I imagine the opening words of the Girl Crazy Suite being 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.

Bill Elliott’s quirky Gershwin arrangements quote other composers.

Hannigan reminds us that both Lulu and Girl Crazy were written at the same time (1929-30). Significantly, Gershwin had met Berg in Vienna in 1928. Against this background, and given Hannigan’s thoughts on the two composers, it is not surprising that Hannigan asked Hollywood composer and Broadway orchestrator 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, György Ligeti, and the late Canadian composer Claude Vivier.

These are not your standard pop concert arrangements of Gershwin show tunes; with lots of dissonance, plenty of quirky rhythms, and quotations from other composers 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.”

Hannigan conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (P. Ketterer, Lucerne Festival)

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. The Ludwig Orchestra further demonstrates its own versatility in performing as a chorus in “Embraceable You.”

With fresh and authoritative music-making from one of the most gifted performers of our time, I am not at all surprised that this is among the nominees for a 2018 Grammy for best classical solo vocal album and 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.

The bonus DVD, Music is Music, offers a 20minute look at Hannigan and the Ludwig Orchestra in rehearsal for this album. After watching these rehearsal sequences there can be no doubt that Barbara Hannigan, a soprano of unique vocal and dramatic ability, 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.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for, (formerly, and