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Friday 25 January 2013

Barbara Hannigan and Quatour Diotima in Berg, Schoenberg and Alma Mahler

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Another concert in the Rest is Noise series, and we're still talking turn of the century music which is really my thing. The fascinating cultural, intellectual and artistic milieu of fin de siecle Vienna in particular is a rich subject for exploration and much has been written about its overripe, overwrought, indulgence, inspiration and eventual rot. Schoenberg's op.2 Songs, all of Alma Mahler's songs and Berg's seven early songs all were composed in this artistic crucible and reflect the sense of exploration and lack of assurance that characterises this period so strongly.

The early Schoenberg set feel like very traditional German lieder gone slightly askew with their tinkling piano figurations which occasionally open out unexpectedly into mystical evocations of rapt poignancy. Unfortunately Hannigan's very idiosyncratic singing did the music no favours - there was simply no legato to speak of - every single note was a lozenge shaped bulge, made even more uncomfortable by the occasional toothpaste like explosion of vibrato onto a sound that is 70% straight tones. Its a very light lyric voice and easily gets lost when quiet notes slip off the breath. One of Schoenberg's op.2 set I had just heard in Renée Fleming's recital at the Barbican last month and the comparison did Hannigan no favours. Neither did it Reinbert de Leeuw's pallid piano playing which rendered all of Schoenberg's complex harmony in drab watercolours, details hardly focussed in the haze.

Alma Mahler's songs have the atmosphere of parlour music, deliciously overlain by the schmerz of Wolf/Mahler songs to create touching little numbers that hint at an as yet incompletely realised compositional voice that may have developed into something really personal had she not been thwarted in this by her husband. Performance wise the same problems that beset the Schoenberg songs were present here too. Berg's Seven Early Songs are an achingly, luxuriantly, feverishly erotic set, the music of a young man trying to prove his compositional potency, and he succeeds admirably - its a set of miniature masterpieces that have understandably gained wider popularity than much of the music of this time. The musical lines are so strong here and colours so potent that it wrung more tone and line out of both performers, but this was still a constricted and frigid reading of a wonderfully indulgent and generous set of songs.

All this I found disappointing because Hannigan is so esteemed in contemporary music circles, and the clips I have heard of her in pieces by Boulez and other contemporary composers reveal a much fuller, more consistent sound, not to mention much more natural phrasing, at least with orchestra. Perhaps her technique changes dramatically for recitals, but it really came up short musically and artistically here. She barely smiled after each set during her bows so I wondered whether she was having an off day. I'm still hopeful about her appearance in the upcoming opera by George Benjamin Written on Skin at the ROH in a couple of months.

Finally we got Schoenberg's Second String Quartet which not so coincidentally features a soprano and is a key work in Schoenberg's transitioning between the lush late romanticism of the Gurrelieder say, and the atonal and eventual 12 tone phases that were to come. I have to say that I prefer its neighbours in Schoenberg's opus numbers list, but the last movement, the most "advanced", stands out as a wonderful inspiration. The Quatour Diotima have a very strange, brittle tone and ultra narrow vibrato, clearly deliberately cultivated as it's so consistent across all four players, but there's no bloom in the sound and little blend between players, with limited dynamic range, balance issues with the cello, and once again a severe lack of phrasing. As a result this was a rather ascetic reading of this already difficult piece, and only the last movement began to live a little more.

If Schoenberg and Berg are to ever gain greater currency they're going to need more passionate and beautiful advocacy than was proffered in this evening's music making. You can't win them all.


  1. If you loved the Hannigan concert (I did too) then you should really check out my website,, which gives the full version of events surrounding Schönberg's composition of his Second String Quartet. Significantly, my thesis conclusively proves through much previously unpublished evidence, that, contrary to previous common perception, the work was not influenced by either Schönberg's marital situation or his wife, Mathilde's, notorious sexual liaison with Richard Gerstl, if only for the simple reason that Schönberg had finished the work and sent it off to Arnold Rosé in Vienna before he discovered his wife's infidelity at the end of August 1908 in Gmunden. Drop me an e-mail if you want to know more or have access to the thesis via my password, which I'll happily let you have. Best, Dr Raymond Coffer (Institute of German and Romance Studies, University of London) (