Skip to main content

 Recording of the Week  Barbara Hannigan sings and conducts music by Berg, Berio, and Gershwin

It’s becoming increasingly common for singers to direct their own ensembles ‘from the voice’ (Philippe Jaroussky and Nathalie Stutzmann both have upcoming albums where they take the reins), but such endeavours generally focus on small-scale baroque repertoire rather than twentieth-century heavyweights like Alban Berg. The Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, though, is something else, and for her debut recording on Alpha she’s devised and directed a programme of music by three composers I never thought I’d see sharing the billing on a soprano album: Berio, Berg and Gershwin. But Crazy Girl Crazy is no ordinary ‘soprano album’ – it’s all built around one of Hannigan’s signature-roles (Berg’s mercurial Lulu), but the emphasis is firmly on the music itself and the story which binds these three unlikely bedfellows together rather than on the unconventional diva herself.

Barbara Hannigan
Barbara Hannigan

Hannigan takes her cue from a remark which Berg made to Gershwin when they met in Vienna in the 1920s (and which gives the short film which accompanies this release its title), ‘Mr Gershwin, music is music’, and the project draws out unexpected but fascinating parallels between the compositions which each man was working on at the time: Lulu and Girl Crazy. As well as taking on the roles of singer, conductor and dramaturg, Hannigan has also worked with the Broadway arranger Bill Elliot to forge Gershwin’s hits from that show into a companion-piece for the Suite from Berg’s opera, and it’s a revelation. (You can read my extended interview with her about the project here).

The album stirs into life from a place that’s as primal as the opening bars of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, with the uncanny mutterings of Berio’s Sequenza III. The work is a nine-minute tour de force for unaccompanied female singer, who’s called upon to deliver all manner of avant-garde vocal pyrotechnics: giggling, sighing, whispering, as well as singing fragmented musical phrases to a brief, disordered text depicting a woman’s desire for security and stability.

But what strikes me about Hannigan’s performance is its lucidity: in our interview she was adamant about resisting the temptation to view the piece as an experimental counterpart to the ‘mad scenes’ of nineteenth-century opera, and though her interpretation emphasises many of the devices associated with such writing (coloratura-like excursions up and down the entire vocal range, stratospheric high notes) the overall effect here is of a personality gradually warming into focus rather than disintegrating before our ears. It helps to be acquainted with the back-story which Hannigan’s created for this nameless character (as she explains in our interview, she sees it as a depiction of ‘the pre-Lulu’ - an exploited fifteen-year-old girl, using an enforced hospital-stay as an opportunity to find her voice), but even on its own terms this disembodied voice comes across as a nascent personality who continues to evolve throughout the rest of the album.

The Suite from Berg’s Lulu (with Hannigan singing the roles of both the eponymous anti-heroine and the Countess who loves and dies with her) seems to emerge organically from the Sequenza, and the transition into the new Gershwin Suite is hardly less seamless – using the same orchestration as Berg, Hannigan and Elliot play up the affinity between Berg’s jazz-inflected score and the big band sound-world of Girl Crazy so that the link (which could sound contrived on paper) comes across as entirely natural.

But what of the connection between Gershwin and Berio? Hannigan completes the circle with brilliant simplicity: in the final stretch of the Gershwin Suite the opening phrase of ‘I got rhythm’ stutters tantalisingly into life much as the disjointed utterances of the Sequenza do before flaring to a thrillingly uninhibited conclusion, complete with a glassy top E flat that reminds us that Lulu’s with us until the very end.

This is a fascinating Portrait of the Artist as a Woman both young and mature, a sequence of songs of innocence and experience which capitalises on both the eternally girlish qualities which have become a hallmark of Hannigan’s artistry and the formidable musical authority which she’s built up over a career immersed in the complexities of contemporary music. It’s also a hugely alluring listening experience, and I strongly urge you to give in and embrace the ‘craziness’.

Crazy Girl Crazy: Music by Gershwin, Berg and Berio

Barbara Hannigan (soprano/conductor), Ludwig Orchestra

Available Formats: CD + DVD Video, MP3, CD Quality FLAC