The Rest is Noise – Barbara Hannigan, Reinbert de Leeuw, Quatuor Diotima – Arnold Schoenberg, Alma Mahler, Alban Berg

Schoenberg
Vier Lieder, Op.2
Alma Mahler
Die stille Stadt; Laue Sommernacht; Ich wandle unter Blumen; Licht in der Nacht
Berg
Sieben frühe Lieder
Schoenberg
String Quartet No.2, Op.10

Barbara Hannigan (soprano), Reinbert de Leeuw (piano) and Quatuor Diotima [Yun-Peng Zhoa & Guillaume Latour (violins), Franck Chevalier (viola) & Pierre Morlet (cello)]


Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 24 January, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Barbara Hannigan. Photograph: Elmet de HaasThe Southbank Centre’s The Rest is Noise series is very much up Barbara Hannigan’s street. The beautiful blonde soprano from Nova Scotia has built her career in twentieth-century and contemporary music, and was apparently a sensational Lulu in the new production at Brussels and will continue to be a presence in The Rest is Noise events. Her almost weightless voice and superb technique seems up for anything that composers can throw at it, including these turn-of-the-last-century Austro-German songs, all written by native Austrians.

Following on from the festival’s opening Richard Strauss concert, this recital emphasised how these Lieder were stuck in a warm bath of well-worked poetic and erotic imagery, overwrought and sublimely inward-looking. You could instantly hear why Hannigan fans respond so enthusiastically to the Mozartean grace of phrasing and pitch. Yet, as the songs’ humidity rose, I found myself wanting more voluptuous colour and vocal Heft. I missed the feeling that so many settings of this period celebrate – that they can just about summon up the effort to heave themselves from eroticism’s crumpled bed to psychiatrist’s couch. The shadows of the texts – many of them by Richard Dehmel, one of the guiding spirits of that period – need to be acknowledged in the voice.

Quatuor Diotima. Photograph: www.quatuordiotima.frI was though completely seduced by Hannigan’s softening of the German words, with just a hint of consonant and those liquefied ‘sch’ sounds to flick the vocal line into impeccably crafted swoops and glides; and in music in which sinking phrases are paramount, she shaped them with subtle variety.

Schoenberg’s Opus 2 collection reminded, yet again, how central he was to German romanticism, with Brahmsian certainties undermined by some wonderfully fragile piano accompaniments, tremulously realised by Reinbert de Leeuw. The volatility of Alban Berg’s Seven Early Songs suited Hannigan well, although the toning-down of words in ‘Crowned by Dreams’ threatened to become a slippery vocalise, and she was superb in the secrecy of the last song, ‘Summer Days’. The group of four Alma Mahler (née Schindler) settings offered a tantalising glimpse of the extent of her sacrifice, with some highly emotive lurches into near-Sprechgesang.

It was a great thrill to hear Arnold Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet again. Hannigan caught the mood of hysterical expectancy in Stefan George’s words in the last two movements superbly – “Ich fühle Luft von anderem Planeten” (I feel the air of another planet) – floating the ecstatic, high-lying vocal lines with impressive, disembodied power. Quatuor Diotima’s playing, sometimes a bit too contained to match Hannigan’s rapture, presented the music’s dense counterpoint with admirable clarity. The finale, though, with the assumptions of tonality thoroughly compromised, was deliriously open-ended.

Possibly to bulk out just over an hour’s-worth of music, Gillian Moore, the Southbank’s Centre’s head of classical music had a chat with Reinbert de Leeuw about the importance of the Schoenberg string quartet for him. Although his enthusiasm for it was obvious, much of what he said was barely audible.


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