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La Passione
Luigi NONO (1924-1990)

Djamila Boupacha (1962) [5:00]
Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony No. 49 (La Passione) (1768) [27:27]
Gérard GRISEY (1946-1998)
Quatre Chants pour franchir le seuil (1998) [40:11]
Ludwig Orchestra/Barbara Hannigan (soprano)
Texts included
rec. 2019, Musiekcentrum van de Omroep, Netherlands.
ALPHA 586 [72:43]

I arrived late to the Barbara Hannigan party but she is worth turning up for. Opera singing’s Glenn Gould, this Canadian singer, or musician rather, has carved her own niche in difficult, far-out contemporary music when anyone else blessed with her agile yet robust high soprano would be content with the easier-to-sell tunes of Donizetti, Bach and Mozart. She still cannot be second guessed. She is highly respected in the contemporary repertoire like Berg’s Lulu and Poulenc’s La voix humaine. Her steady flow of albums has made a feature of juxtaposition: Berio and Gershwin, Wolf and Schoenberg. As if to stoke controversy further, she has in recent years become that despised figure: the singer who conducts. Her gender and undeniable good looks must surely compound the ill-will when confronted with the jaded, sweaty men that make up a lot of orchestras, yet she has generally triumphed on the podium. She keeps her hand in with the odd bit of Mahler or Britten but she is chiefly a figure who loiters around György Ligeti, Martin Crimp and Hans Abrahamsen. Classic FM do not play her much.

The new album, La Passione, takes its title from the Haydn’s ground-breaking 49th symphony. Its Passiontide origins are much disputed, and Haydn never named it himself, but there is a decidedly ungentle, passionate character to this symphony: turmoil and extremes at odds with the formal slow, fast, slow fast movement structure. This excellent performance of Haydn’s Sturm und Drang work clearly means a lot to Hannigan. She asked for the continuo to convey a “lost, dark angel… to stumble and fumble in the darkness… her wings confined within her shroud”. Well, okay. What Hannigan gets is a very tasteful, idiomatic angel playing underneath the spirited, peppy performance. There is a real sense of chamber music and individual character about the Ludwig Orchestra’s playing, I just wish it had been miked a little closer. Sound is a little too reverberant and gloomy for the Haydn; the strings could use some definition.

Either side of this Classical milestone is a shimmering, glassy work of Modernism. Both are new to me. Hannigan rightly does not allow lingering or much in the way of gaps between pieces, helping the Haydn fit right into this modern installation. Jamila Boupacha, a five-minute work for soprano solo, is the second of Nono’s cycle Canti di vita e amore, a setting of Jesus Lopez Pachero’s poem Esta Noche. Boupacha, still alive, was a former Algerian militant tortured and raped by the French army into confessing in her role in a café bombing. Nono’s music was a quick response to the international outrage that also inspired Pablo Picasso and Simone de Beauvoir to confront colonial attitudes. It is a glacially beautiful piece, a tour de force for Hannigan’s ethereal voice. There is a message of hope in the final lines La lumiere viendra, vous pouvez me croire (The light must come, belive what I tell you), neatly offset by the sombre opening of the Haydn that follows.

The other side of the symphony brings Gerard Grisey’s final work, Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (literally Four songs for crossing the threshold) . The spacious acoustic suits this far better, with its layers of cross-rhythms and rocking sounds. The opening Death of an angel is framed by wave effects, growl and swells, whereas Death of Civilisation is conventionally still and beautiful. Death of the voice will fit the image many will have of contemporary music, with its vocal leaps, screams and general brooding from its jagged accompaniment. I was gripped. There are moments of real beauty, and the Berceuse should entice even the most phobic listener of atonal music. Its gentle hurdy gurdy rhythm keeps the flowing vocal line aloft. The whole journey of this album is enjoyably weird but it is this destination of Grisey that warrants the most attention.

Without a score to follow, I cannot comment on technical accuracy but the Ludwig Orchestra play the clashing repertoire with real colour and conviction. Hannigan’s bright, bat-like vocalism really does warrant the hype, and she relishes the text as much as the acrobatic leaps of the music. She is, if nothing else, a great ambassador for jagged modern music. The simple reason is that she conveys sheer pleasure and engagement which is such a tonic from the clinically sight-read and detached performances that hinder many other singers in ‘difficult’ repertoire.

Alpha’s presentation is exemplary. Texts and translations are included, and context is given by Hannigan herself. I think she might be overselling the depths of Haydn’s theatrical output. Although I find his 49th symphony unusually thrilling and full of sharp contrasts, I am less convinced by Hannigan’s assertions that it is about the living and the afterlife. Hannigan is less full of it than other wannabe provocateurs (I’m looking at you, Teodor Currentzis), and her ideas are backed up well in her writing, direct, fascinating and utterly without arrogance. This is just her personal response to these pieces and their relationship to one another. A weird, clashing menu of trauma, turmoil and transfiguration that convinces long after the album ends.

Barnaby Rayfield

Previous review: Brian Wilson

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