Vienna: Fin de Siècle (Barbara Hannigan)
After a well-received album of Satie for the French composer’s anniversary, Barbara Hannigan and Reinbert de Leeuw (having transitioned from Winter & Winter to Alpha) present a generous programme of fin de siècle Viennese songs. In a booklet conversation they describe this as music ‘at the edge of tonality, and also at the end of it’. Though they also admit it’s music rooted in a near century-long tradition started by Schubert, there’s very much the sense of these songs being approached from the other side, glancing back knowingly from a post-war perspective.
Hannigan’s approach, then, is not what we’re used to. In many of the songs there’s the sense that she’s embodying one of her most famous roles, Berg’s Lulu; I found myself imagining a waif-like protagonist wandering through shadowy, dreamlike landscapes. The delivery is intimate, confiding and almost coquettish. De Leeuw offers gentle, patient and discreet accompaniment. Hannigan’s voice is lithe and flexible rather than rich and firm; she strokes the vocal line lovingly rather than grasping it; her German is languid and unpercussive – often difficult to decipher. You might, like me, find yourself thinking more of the cabaret than the concert hall.
At times it’s supremely seductive. There’s no denying the erotic charge she communicates, for example, in Schoenberg’s Dehmel settings (listen to the final phrase of ‘Schenk mir deinen goldenen Kamm’, for example). You’ll struggle not to be carried away, too, with her way with the early Zemlinsky songs – such marvellous pieces in themselves. And her high notes in Berg’s ‘Schilflied’ are difficult to resist.
But several of Hannigan’s touches strike me, if not as inauthentic (to raise the question of authenticity is to open a can of worms), then at least as overly affected. High notes regularly float airily before being filled out, and there are swoops and slides aplenty (listen to Webern’s ‘Am Ufer’ or ‘Helle Nacht’). Occasionally I longed for something more straightforward, objective even, especially in the more ‘traditional’ Wolf numbers that conclude the disc. But, as usual with Hannigan, there’s some compelling, fascinating singing here.