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Crazy Girl Crazy
Luciano BERIO (1925-2003)
Sequenza III [9:00]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Lulu Suite [35:13]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Girl Crazy Suite (Arr. By Bill Elliott & Barbara Hannigan; orch. Bill Elliott) [13:10]
Ludwig Orchestra/Barbara Hannigan (soprano)
rec. August 2016, Musiekcentrum van de Omroep, Netherlands.
Also includes DVD: ‘Music is Music’. A film by Mathieu Amalric [approx. 20:00]
French & German subtitles
ALPHA 293 [57:23]

Alpha seems to be promoting some formidable feminine talent. Recently I rave reviewed Kate Lindsey’s enterprising concept album (with Baptiste Trotignon), ‘Thousands of Miles’, featuring songs by Kurt Weill, Alma Mahler, Korngold and Zemlinsky. Now Alpha releases this album featuring the remarkable versatility of Barbara Hannigan, as soprano and conductor. She also contributes this album’s booklet notes.

Coincidental to considering this release, I was also watching a DVD of a 1943 Warner Bros film, that had previously been unavailable to the general public for nearly 70 years – The Constant Nymph (with music by Korngold) starring Charles Boyer and featuring an extraordinary performance by Joan Fontaine as Tessa, like Lulu, a fourteen/fifteen year old girl madly, crazily in love with a struggling young composer (Boyer). Quite the opposite, then, of Lulu the wild anti-heroine of Alban Berg’s opera; for Tessa’s love is unquestioning, an angelic, selfless love.

Reading the story of Berg’s opera one has the impression that Lulu is unredeemable; wicked willful and self-obsessed. Hannigan takes a different view preferring to see Lulu as a vulnerable victim of male ‘pick-up-and-discard’ aggression but determined and strong enough to survive and ‘go her own way.’ Hannigan observes, ‘The title of this CD was chosen to represent three works, each close to my heart. Girlhood plays an important part, as does the idea of craziness of being in love, of being crazy about someone, of being driven crazy by an inner rhythm.’

The album opens with Berio’s Sequenza III. Here the text is ‘sung’ or scattered brokenly through the piece. The words are from Markus Kutter: ‘Give me a few words for a woman to sing a truth allowing us to build a house without worrying before night comes.’ Hannigan delivers the Sequenza in a crazed ‘non-language’, a series of weird noises, peculiar non-verbal utterances and hysterical wailings, all perhaps suggestive of the complications and desperations of passing through feminine adolescence? Halliday’s vocal contortions, crazed laughter and pathetic keening, plus occasional brief bits of gorgeous over-arching lyricism are extraordinary and show off her remarkable vocal range. She confesses that she, with Berio’s performance notes authorization, transposed this vocal material up to more realistically convey ‘a high, pure girlish world.’

Berg’s Lulu Suite was conceived as something of a trailer that the composer wrote to promote his upcoming opera. It opens with ‘Rondo’ an atmospheric movement covering many moods and ranging backwards and forwards over the time of the story up to and after the violent death of Lulu’s long-time lover Dr Schoen, shot by Lulu with his own gun. The music begins in melancholy and shadows. A lyricism is punctuated by jazzy blues and dissonances. There is intimation of girlhood aspirations and vulnerability, yet a strongly asserted defiance too. An all-consuming blackness tends to scar the texture. Harmonies and orchestrations are extraordinary, novel but bleak. Before the brutal close, one might deduce that the music is trying to convey a transition of sorts from childhood to mature woman? The brief Ostinato movement propels presto, hysterically forward. At first; this is swirling nightmarish music. One might imagine Alfred Hitchcock being impressed with this material. There follows Lulu’s song. Here are three minutes of lyric coloratura over two plus octaves delivered with feeling and confidence by Hannigan. The ‘Variations’ that follow are seedy and blousy with despairing brass. Darker despair follows in the concluding ‘Adagio’, the music covering the suicidal wishes of Lulu’s lesbian admirer, Countess Geschwitz, and Lulu’s fulfilled death wish at the hands of Jack the Ripper. At Lulu’s demise there is a huge black climax punctuated by over-riding, sneering brass. Hannigan clearly empathises strongly with the spirit of story and music and draws a correspondingly committed performance from the young Ludwig players, many of whom are women.

From all this gloom we move to lighter fare, to Gershwin’s Girl Crazy, again featuring the story of star-crossed teenagers. From the original stage musical, it was filmed in 1943 with young Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney playing the college students. Frankly I think the link between the Berg and Gershwin characters is somewhat tenuous. Whatever, Hannigan deftly switches from Berg to Gershwin by seguing the material from one to the other so that this Gershwin feels la Berg.

Besides conducting the Ludwig Orchestra, Hannigan sings with zeal and feeling three big numbers from the show: ‘But Not for Me’, ‘I got Rhythm’ and ‘Embraceable You’ For this latter song, she persuades the orchestra to join her in a chorus for one verse. The orchestra contributes another hit from the show, ‘Strike Up the Band’. All great fun to end the programme on a higher note after all the preceding angst.

The short DVD that accompanies the album has a lot of superfluous and meaningless footage of empty music stands and unidentified landscapes. However it does show some joyous Gershwin rehearsals with Hannigan and the young orchestra clearly enjoying themselves. And at one point you see the score – or rather the sound plan of Sequenza III.
Ian Lace
Previous review: John Quinn



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