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Vienna: Fin de Siècle
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)

Vier Lieder, Op.2 (1899) [10.59]
Anton WEBERN (1883-1945)
Fünf Lieder nach Gedichten von Richard Dehmel (1906-08) [12.28]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Sieben Frühe Lieder (1907) [15.17]
Alexander von ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Aus Lieder, Op. 2, Op. 5 & Op. 7 (1895-99) [12.10]
Alma MAHLER (1879-1964)
Aus Fünf Lieder (1910) [5.50]
Aus Vier Lieder (1915) [3.37]
Hugo WOLF (1860-1903)
Goethe-Lieder (1888) [15.35]
Barbara Hannigan (soprano)
Reinbert de Leeuw (piano)
rec. 2017, Muziekcentrum van de Omroep, Hilversum, Netherlands
ALPHA CLASSICS 393 [77.41]

Listeners who fight shy of Schoenberg – and they exist to this day – may well be surprised by the romanticism at the heart of the Four Songs, Op. 2. Fugitive traces of earlier composers pass through this music, though with tonal harmony stretched to its limits. Yet cadence points frequently resolve onto unequivocal major or minor triads, and though you might need a few hearings before you’d be able to whistle the tunes, the singer’s lines rarely stray very far from tonal patterns. These are essentially love songs without much in the way of drama or contrast. There is, in truth, a certain uniformity from one song to the other, but Hannigan, here and throughout this characteristically uncompromising recital, skilfully leads us to the most significant words and musical phrases.

Diatonic harmonies are not wholly absent in the Webern songs either – indeed, the fourth song ends with a defiant major triad on the piano. But anecdotal evidence – from no more than talking to music-loving friends – suggests that even those who have reconciled themselves to Schoenberg still have trouble with the gnomic works of Webern. These songs are early works, and Webern had not yet pared down his art to the minimum. Even so, they are tougher nuts to crack than the Schoenberg songs. Those willing to try have the perfect guide in Barbara Hannigan. Her singing of these songs is exquisite, seductive, highly expressive and varied both in colour and in articulation. She is superbly accompanied at the piano by Reinbert de Leeuw.

Berg’s songs present a more immediate and evident response to the texts than those of either Schoenberg or Webern. The listener perceives a clearer line of succession from earlier composers. Indeed, the close of the final song could almost have been composed by Strauss. Hannigan is, once again, alive and responsive to every last detail of text and music, and, as a bonus, makes a very attractive nightingale in the third song.

I think the Zemlinsky songs will be a real find for many collectors, just as they were for me. The composer keeps a firmer hold on tonality whilst retaining the unmistakeable atmosphere of his time and place. His approach to word-setting allows for more variety of pace and mood, a characteristic that Hannigan brings out with great success.

Zemlinsky’s songs demonstrate subtlety, sophistication and profound craftmanship, qualities that make those by Alma Mahler, the composer’s widow, seem pale by comparison. In ‘Die stille Stadt’, for example, Zemlinsky would probably have been able to evoke the twilit atmosphere of early evening without recourse to Mahler’s melodic and harmonic formulae. There are times, too, when the music seems at odds with the sense of the words. The performers treat the songs with great respect, making of them a pleasant listening experience. At the close of ‘Licht in der Nacht’, Hannigan produces the most exquisitely soft singing of the whole collection.

This superb recital ends with four of the ‘Mignon’ songs from the fifty-one settings of Goethe composed by Hugo Wolf during 1888 and 1889. At least three of the four, including the monumental ‘Kennst du das Land’, may have been composed in a single day. In their psychological complexity, their response to the text and their emotional range, these songs make an even crueller comparison with the songs of Alma Mahler. Once again, Barbara Hannigan’s interpretations are characterised by a remarkable intelligence and responsiveness. I have heard the arguments of those who say that Hannigan’s voice is not among the most beautiful, and it is true that there are one or two moments of shrillness here that will not please everybody. I do not share that view, however, and in any event it would pale into insignificance against the intelligence of the singing.

Reviews often end with the phrase ‘if the programme appeals’. In this case, I’d like to recommend this recital even if the programme doesn’t appeal. It’s the perfect way to find your way into repertoire that many music lovers continue to resist.

Reinbert de Leeuw provides the booklet essay, in conversation with the singer. It is both wise and revealing, though not a listening guide. All sung texts are provided alongside their translation into English.

William Hedley

Previous review: Michael Cookson


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