Playlist: inspirational female voices

James Jolly Tue 15th August 2017

Barbara Hannigan’s championing of new music is central to her musical philosophy. Last year’s Gramophone Classical Music Awards saw her breathtaking recording of Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you taking the Contemporary Award, a popular choice. Cathy Berberian, possessor of one of the most astoundingly flexible and deliciously flavourful voices on record, was the muse for numerous composers including her husband Luciano Berio (who wrote his wonderful Folk Songs for her). But it’s her own Stripsody that I’ve chosen, a work that can still bring a blush to the cheek with its unabashed sauciness. Jane Manning is, for anyone interested in contemporary music over the past half century, one of its key vocalists. A great exponent of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, Manning has also inspired numerous composers to write for her. An extraordinary example of her art is Harrison Birtwistle’s Nenia: The Death of Orpheus from 1972 – it demands the kind of fearless vocalism that Berio would regularly call on Berberian for – and Manning is on magnificent form, and rather touching in the quiet yet intense (and beautifully articulated) speechsinging that ends this 18-minute score. The American Dawn Upshaw has inspired and performed a copious amount of new music, and quite a lot has made it onto recordings. Her light, versatile soprano and highly appealing vocal colour is heard to great effect in Kaaja Saariaho’s Lonh, a 16-minute work for voice and electronics from 1996 to a text by the 12th-century Jaufré Rudel (whose story inspired Saariaho’s opera L’amour de loin), and touched with a sensuality that people rarely associate with contemporary music. Another American singer, Phyllis Bryn Julson, deserves to be mentioned in this company, possessor of a light soprano that wraps itself around angular melodies with great ease. She recorded extensively and I’ve chosen Tavener’s Akhmatova: Requiem which finds Bryn Julson on magnificent form. I’ve also chosen Linda Hirst, another British soprano and passionate champion of new music, in Boulez’s seminal Le marteau sans maître, a work she does magically.

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