Barbara Hannigan defies categorization, a fact she mostly proved in her first local recital, presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. The Canadian soprano largely made her name as a brilliant exponent of contemporary music, premiering roles in several of this century’s most important new operas. But one senses that her gilded, pliant voice would sound great singing nearly anything.
Hannigan presented an all-lieder program conceived by her accompanist, formidable Dutch pianist and conductor Reinbert de Leeuw. The first half traced the early successes of Arnold Schönberg, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg, the three composers who defined the Second Viennese School. After intermission, Hannigan offered cycles by Hugo Wolf and Alexander Zemlinsky, as well as art songs by Zemlinsky’s pupil and lover, Alma Mahler.
From a vocal standpoint, the evening was a triumph. Hannigan moved effortlessly throughout her range. Her entirely unforced high notes shimmered in the air of the Perelman Theater, and she displayed a surprisingly juicy lower register. Her judicious use of vibrato always made sense, particularly in Berg’s Sieben Führe Lieder (Seven Early Songs), which balance the sublimity of the natural world with carnal desire. And although she sometimes dipped into what I call “German cabaret voice” — where consonants dramatically roll and purr — she never seemed disconnected from the text.
Still, the program occasionally felt imbalanced, as the more interesting music appeared before the interval. Although the selections from Schönberg, Webern, and Berg don’t represent these composers at their mature best, one can easily hear how theirs became a defining style in 20th-century classical music.
Schönberg’s Vier Lieder (Four Songs) finds him already wrestling with his Romantic predecessors, which Hannigan and de Leeuw especially showed in “Schenk mir deinen goldenen Kamm” (“Present me with your golden comb”), the cycle’s second song. At the piano, de Leeuw flirted with chromaticism, while Hannigan capped the piece with a lustrous B-natural. The composer’s desired juxtaposition of Romanticism with an early strand of Expressionism felt apparent, setting the song in contrast to the cycle’s more traditional offerings.
Although she barely moved from her perch against de Leeuw’s piano, Hannigan showed how a great musician can act with her voice. Her choices were sometimes too dramatic, morphing simple lieder into miniature grand operas. But they more often seemed just right. Her bright, expressive face glowed as she sang the opening lines of Webern’s “Helle Nacht” (“Bright Night”), which describe how “the white moon / kisses the branches.” She performed Berg’s erotically charged “Die Nachtigall” (“The Nightingale”) as if in flight herself.
Yet I doubt any interpreter, no matter how dramatically skilled, could make much of a case for Alma Mahler, whose dull bagatelles sound like student compositions. There’s a reason she was known as a muse to genius rather than as a genius in her own right. Hannigan sang Mahler’s childish lieder with commitment, but the unmemorable melodies quickly evaporated.
The program ended with a strange performance of Wolf’s Mignon Lieder. De Leeuw employed surprisingly slow tempos, which allowed Hannigan to parse every word of the four Goethe poems that comprise the text. This decision made some stylistic sense; each poem presents a long narrative that builds to an explosive climax. But soprano and pianist luxuriated inside the music in ways that bordered on the self-indulgent — not how one would expect to tell the story of a simple, downtrodden country girl.
Despite the debatable finale, Hannigan gave Philadelphia a night to remember. Her program ended with warm applause but no encores. This fascinating artist had already said all she meant to say.