Barbara Hannigan - Vienna, fin de siècle - The Times

Is there nothing that Barbara Hannigan cannot do? Apart from being the world’s best, most persuasive singer of contemporary music, the Canadian soprano has recently become a nifty conductor, almost capable of displaying both skills at once. After her new release it’s also clear that she’s a powerful singer of late romantic lieder, songs about night shadows, clouds, love, death, white chrysanthemums and all the other symbols customarily stacked up inside the stanzas of feverish poets.

Admittedly, half the composers in Vienna: Fin de siècle are those demolishers of tonality, Schoenberg, Webern and Berg. Yet this hypnotic and lovely album, recorded with the 80-year-old modernist champion Reinbert de Leeuw at the piano, catches the trio in their relative youth, in the 1900s, when their traditional harmonies were starting to melt, but hadn’t yet given up the ghost. A third of the album’s songs draw on poems by Richard Dehmel, who saw love and sex everywhere he looked — something reflected in the sensuous beauty of Hannigan’s voice as she traces the vocal lines’ leaps and bounds, always pure in tone. De Leeuw’s piano playing, gently crisp and penetrating, casts its own spell, enhanced by the sympathetic recording.

Highlights? The rich, rotting tonality of Schoenberg’s Op 2 songs; the half voice showcased in Webern’s Am Ufer; the pungent variety of the Zemlinsky selection; and Hannigan’s expressive intensity in Hugo Wolf. Listener concentration is needed, and the furrow the album ploughs is narrow. Even so, great rewards await.

The Times
21 September 2018