Barbara Hannigan: Crazy Girl Crazy
Alpha Classics

Canadian-born, Paris-based soprano Barbara Hannigan is nothing if not intrepid. As one of the world's most in-demand singers, she's a bewitching presence, as anyone who's seen her riveting performance in Ligeti's Mysteries of the Macabre will attest (viewable online). Regarded as one of contemporary music's most distinguished interpreters and advocates, she's perhaps best known for her inhabitation of the title role in Alban Berg's Lulu, which she's sung in multiple productions since 2012. In recent years this veritable force of nature has also established herself as a conductor, not just credibly but as an audacious conceptualist intent on imprinting a fierce personal vision upon the material performed. Both sides are captured marvelously on Crazy Girl Crazy, her debut album as singer and conductor, a set recently awarded the 2018 Grammy as the 'Best Classical Solo Vocal Album.'

It's a striking set on many levels. The recording proper is accompanied by a DVD featuring the twenty-minute film Music is Music by director Mathieu Amalric, while the CD presents Hannigan and, on two of the three pieces, the Amsterdam-based Ludwig Orchestra performing Luciano Berio's Sequenza III (1965), Berg's Lulu Suite (1934), and George Gershwin's Girl Crazy Suite, the latter a thirteen-minute production arranged by Hannigan and American composer Bill Elliott.

However incongruous the three works might seem on paper, connections exist between them, as Hannigan insightfully clarifies in the mini-essay she contributed to the release. The character Lulu is the key to all three, with the singer in Berio's piece re-imagined by Hannigan as a fifteen-year-old version of Berg's protagonist, and the parallels between Berg and Gershwin are even more pronounced. Both explore the “highs and lows of life and love” and were composed contemporaneously, though Berg's was written in Vienna and Gershwin's an ocean away. And, as if intent on collapsing the distance between their respective styles even more, Berg himself reportedly said to Gershwin during a 1928 get-together in Vienna, “Music is music.”

Berio's Sequenza III is a remarkable scene-setter, as well as an immense challenge for even the most experienced vocalist. Anything but a bel canto exercise, the piece, which Berio originally composed for Cathy Berberian, coaxes from Hannigan the fullest repertoire of vocal effects—rapid-fire trills, shrieks, moans, jabbers, clicks, warbles, laughter, whispers—in a transfixing nine-minute performance that's as playful and, yes, crazy as it is unsettling. There is a text but chances are you'll focus less on its twenty-three words than be captivated by Hannigan's vocal acrobatics.

She characterizes Berg's suite as “a thirty-minute trailer for his opera,” and while that's not wrong, the description sells the work a tad short. In fact, the five-part, thirty-five-minute suite functions superbly as a stand-alone microcosm of the opera, including as it does its lyrical themes, dynamic contrasts, emotional expressiveness, and doom-laden aura, and under her direction, the Ludwig Orchestra delivers an impassioned performance. Rendered at a deliciously dream-like tempo, the lengthy “Rondo” overflows with haunting string melodies, and deftly illustrates how brilliantly Berg was able to turn Schoenberg's system to stunning and highly personalized ends. As entrancing are the concluding “Adagio” with its Mahler-like string textures and the shattering blows with which it ends. In the central part, “Lied der Lulu,” Hannigan sings, too, in this case assuming the personae of both the title figure and the Countess Geschwitz, and even though the movement's a mere three minutes, a remarkable feat of vocal performance it is.

The Gershwin suite isn't, by the way, a simple, stitched-together grouping of songs, even if “But Not For Me,” “Embraceable You,” and “I Got Rhythm” appear in sequence. Instead, Elliott and Hannigan purposefully designed the suite so that strong connections would be felt between it and the Berg suite. To that end, the same orchestration and musical language are present in both pieces, and a brief passage of popular music emerges within Berg's “Variationen” to tie it to a “Strike Up the Band” sequence within Gershwin's suite. Of course, Hannigan's renderings don't swing as the material does when it's sung by an Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan, but hearing the soprano tackle these oh-so-familiar songs supported by the orchestra's luscious arrangements is delightful nonetheless.

The DVD component is, unfortunately, a disappointment, though a factor here might be that I simply expected more than twenty mildly interesting minutes of footage showing Hannigan rehearsing with the orchestra, reviewing scores in various settings, and participating in the recording session process. Little context or background is provided in what's ultimately an anecdotal collage—which isn't to suggest that the usual approach featuring commentators should have been adopted instead, just that something as substantial as the audio portion would have been more satisfying; there's considerably more substance in her booklet essay, for example, than there is in the film portrait. The recording itself, however, more than compensates for whatever's lacking in the DVD, which might best be regarded as a bonus to the hour-long CD. An interesting final note: apparently Hannigan was at one point considering including Bernard Herrmann's Psycho Suite in the project but decided otherwise for the association the titular word would impart to Lulu. As obviously strong as the works are that she did choose for the release, the idea of Herrmann's piece being part of it is nevertheless tantalizing.

February 2018