Barbara Hannigan / Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich
Ligeti / Berg / Debussy / Stravinsky

Tonhalle Zurich, 2017-04-02

3.5-star rating

2017-04-05 — Original posting

Barbara Hannigan (© Musacchio and Ianniellos)
Barbara Hannigan (© Musacchio and Ianniellos)

Table of Contents

Barbara Hannigan, Conductor and Soprano

The Canadian Barbara Hannigan is one of today’s leading sopranos for contemporary music. She was born 1971 and grew up in Waverley, Nova Scotia, where she received her initial musical education. In 1988, she moved to Toronto and continued her education at the University of Toronto. See Wikipedia for more information on her repertoire, recordings. According to the German Wikipedia, Hannigan now lives in The Netherlands.

In 2011, Barbara Hannigan started conducting, performing concerts in both roles, as singer and as conductor. The two concerts in Zurich (2017-04-01 and this one on 2017-04-02) with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich were examples of such “double performances”.

Introduction — This Concert

The balmy spring weather on this Sunday afternoon did not really lead to the spontaneous decision to attend a concert at Tonhalle. So, it seemed normal that the big hall of the Tonhalle in Zurich wasn’t sold out. Yet, the number of visitors in this subscription concert was amazingly high. Particularly as the repertoire consisted of pieces from 1900 onwards. The subscription audience looked like mostly elder people.

The concert started with a well-prepared (scripted?) interview with Barbara Hannigan. Parts of this apparently aimed at making the 20th century repertoire palatable. That was of course a pointless exercise. Those in the hall had already made the decision to “consume” the music in that concert.

On the interview provided valuable information from the conductor and singer, about her relationship with the role of Lulu. She presented that woman as a role model for a person that deserves our recognition, even our affection. Barbara Hannigan argues that Lulu retains her self-esteem, despite the adversities, the atrocities that happen to her. In contrast to the people that Lulu encounters, who interact with her.

And I liked the clear language of the eloquent singer, her excellent pronunciation and understandability. Singers and actors have a definitive advantage in giving interviews!

A Note on the Programming

The central piece in Alban Berg’s opera “Lulu” is “Das Lied der Lulu” (Lulu’s song). Berg placed this song in the center of the five movements in this Symphonic Pieces. The composer intended these pieces to look like a symphony. The last movement is also the end of the opera. It includes the few last words of Countess Geschwitz, directed at the protagonist in a next world.

Hannigan sees György Ligeti’s “Atmosphères” as a kind of “postlude” to the opera, a view into a beyond after the action in the opera. Or maybe a view from a beyond onto the things that happened. In the concert, she starts with that postlude. She made it a prelude. However, one that closes the circle to the ending of the opera, and of the Symphonic Pieces.

Ligeti: Atmosphères” for Grand Orchestra

1956, the events in Hungary forced György Ligeti (1923 – 2006) to emigrate. He settled in Cologne. There, he met a very stimulating environment, with colleagues such as Mauricio Kagel (1931 – 2008), Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928 – 2007), and others. He initially experimented with electronic music. One feature that was popular at that time in electronic music were sound clusters, i.e., a given (or variable) interval is filled with intermediate tones, such that individual tones / pitches are unrecognizable. After such experimenting, Ligeti soon switched back to instrumental compositions again.

Two orchestral pieces were initial results of the “Cologne experience”, “Apparitions” (1958/59) and “Atmosphères” for grand orchestra (1961). At the time, these were revolutionary pieces, the first examples of orchestral sound clusters. “Atmosphères” also became known when it was used in the soundtrack in the 1968 film “2001 — A Space Odyssey” by Stanley Kubrick (1928 – 1999).

How Does it Sound?

“Atmosphères” is a deliberately “structureless” piece. It is a “continuum”, written for 89 musicians, each with their individual voice. The result is a gradually changing sound cluster made from 89 voices, using a very rich set of instruments. The composition builds up in waves, ultimately forms one singe, big arch. There is no rhythm, no melody to speak of. At most, as in aleatoric music, coincidences may form seemingly arbitrary melodic fragments / motifs. Even entries of individual voices are gradual, usually inconspicuous. Rarely, one hears a voice setting in. One exception is when the music seems to escape into silence at the highest possible (& still audible) pitches, then suddenly starts again, with force, in the depth of the basses.

To the audience, the sound covers a broad scope. At the soft end barely audible, blowing noises (a seashore? the wind blowing), the humming of a swarm of bees, murmuring in a large crowd. The piece grows into a forceful, all-encompassing, whirring sound, then retracts into silence. Distant memories? Transfiguration? Remembrance of long past beauty?

The Performance

Of course, the music is written down metrically, i.e., it includes a well-defined course of actions. Barbara Hannigan conducted from the score, with flowing, mainly sideways swaying gestures. It looked like painting the sound, occasionally using her pinkies as substitute for a baton. I have no doubts that she was intimately familiar with the score. She safely guided the orchestra through the composition. The sound of the ensemble was perfectly balanced, the sound absolutely homogeneous.

In the interview, she had explained that the Lulu-Suite by Berg would be played attacca, i.e., without break. I believe that the prime reason for this was that she did not want extra applause between the Ligeti and Berg pieces. Of course, all of the musicians needed to switch to different sheets. And she also needed to switch to another score. This can’t happen in an instant. So, she simply conducted a long general rest with slow, regular beats. To me, this looked rather strange, slightly helpless, if not awkward. Can a conducted general rest of 45 seconds still be called attacca??

Berg: Symphonic Pieces from the Opera “Lulu”

Alban Berg (1885 – 1935) was one of the key exponents of the Second Vienna School”. He wrote two operas in his lifetime: “Wozzeck” (1922), and “Lulu” (1928 – 1935). The latter is based on two plays “Erdgeist” (1895) and “Die Büchse der Pandora” (1904) by Frank Wedekind (1864 – 1918). It remained incomplete. “Lulu” premiered in Zurich (1937) in an incomplete version (2 acts only). Arnold Schönberg (1874 – 1951) declined to complete the opera (i.e., the instrumentation). So, Helene Berg, the composer’s widow, forbade anybody else to complete the score. Only after the death of the widow (1976), the opera was completed by Friedrich Cerha (1926 – 2023). It premiered in Paris, only in 1979, directed by Pierre Boulez (1925 – 2016).

The Symphonic Pieces

In the introduction, Barbara Hannigan called the five Symphonic Pieces from “Lulu” an “extended trailer” for the opera. Of course, that’s a totally anachronistic term for music that was composed prior to WWII. Nevertheless, the suite (instrumented and completed 1934/1935) incorporates the gist of the opera. In other words: the very central piece, “Lulu’s Song” from the opera. The last movement consists of the concluding verses by Countess Geschwitz at the end of the opera.

Performing even just this excerpt from the opera seemed a risky undertaking in the years prior to WWII. Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886 – 1954) initially advised against performing it. However, ultimately, Erich Kleiber (1890 –1956) persuaded him to perform the pieces anyway. This turned out to be a considerable success. Unfortunately, only days after that, Furtwängler was forced to resign. This happened in connection with his premiering the opera “Mathis der Maler” by Paul Hindemith (1895 – 1963). Erich Kleiber then emigrated to South America. [Information in parts taken from the program notes for the concert.]

The five movements of the suite-symphony are as follows:

  1. Rondo (Andante & hymn)
  2. Ostinato (Allegro)
  3. Lulu’s song (Comodo)
  4. Variations (Moderato)
  5. Adagio (Sostenuto, lento, grave)

The Performance

Of course, Barbara Hannigan is intimately familiar with Berg’s opera “Lulu“. The title role must be one of the core parts in her repertoire as dramatic / coloratura soprano. This time, she dealt with this music from the “other side of the conductor’s desk”, though. Despite its entirely different character, the music of the five Symphonic Pieces feels like a natural fit to Ligeti’s “Atmosphères“. Or rather the other way around, of course, considering chronology. That said: as revolutionary as it may have been in 1961, “Atmosphères” now feels like a timeless composition.

I. Rondo

To me, this felt like a an “opéra en miniature“, basically a quietly pulsating piece. Yet, both in dynamics and in character, it turned emotional, even dramatic at times, in waves. Yes, it is dodecaphonic music, Second Viennese School. Yet, the piece is of a dense, sometimes almost grandiloquent beauty. It is anything but academic. And it is melodically so typical of Alban Berg: very nice! Barbara Hannigan’s conducting technique didn’t change here, it remained unconventional (to say the least). However, she managed to guide the orchestra through the composition, with sufficient clarity in her gestures. And she kept control over the large ensemble.

II. Ostinato

The melodic, polyphonic and polyrhythmic-complex Ostinato movement is only half the duration of Ligeti’s “Atmosphères“. However, it beats the latter in the width of its sound palette.

III. Lulu’s song

For “Lulu’s Song”, Barbara Hannigan turned around, towards the audience, (marginally) conducting the orchestra with lateral arm gestures. At the same time, she sung her demanding role with dramatic, well-projecting voice. An impressive, well-formed interpretation. Even the highest notes she mastered effortlessly. To her, singing and conducting appeared to complement each other naturally.

IV. Variations

The fourth movement, “Variations” is short and uses popular-sounding, almost folk melodic elements. At times, the music reminded me of funfair sceneries. However, through its colorful polytonality and the rich polyphony, the music avoided slipping off into platitudes.

V. Adagio

The final movement forms a stark contrast, exhibiting almost Mahlerian breadth and beauty, building up dramatically, up to extreme emotionality. Barbara Hannigan kept the enormous masses of sound well under control, singing the Countess Geschwitz’ short verses towards the orchestra. Yet, she remained perfectly audible and understandable.

Only when she accepted the applause one could realize & see how much of her physical forces and reserves she had given into this music!

Debussy: “Nuages” from Trois Nocturnes“, L.91

Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) finished his “Trois Nocturnes” (Three Nocturnes), L.91, in December 1899. The three movements are

  1. Nuages (“Clouds”)
  2. Fêtes (“Festivals”)
  3. Sirènes (“Sirens”)

Barbara Hannigan selected the first of these movements, “Nuages” (Clouds) as opening piece for the second half. In a way, this also served as introduction for Stravinsky’s “Symphony in Three Movements“. It formed an interesting analogy to the way in which Ligeti’s “Atmosphères” led into Berg’s “Symphonic Pieces”. The tempo annotations in “Nuages” are as follows:

  • Modéré – Un peu animé – Tempo I – Plus lent – Encore plus lent.

The Performance

More than “Atmosphères“, this is a contemplative piece that plays with sound colors, forms a harmonious, wide-spanning arch. I felt the blue color of the sky, the emerging and vanishing of friendly cumulus clouds. However, the music never turns “concrete”, does not evoke or paint specific pictures or situations. I liked the warm, homogeneous string colors, the excellent players in the wind section of the orchestra.

Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements

Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) wrote his “Symphony in Three Movements” 1942–1945. This was a commission by the Philharmonic Symphony Society of New York. The symphony premiered in 1946, with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and with the composer conducting.

  1. Overture; Allegro
  2. Andante — Interlude: L’istesso tempo
  3. Con moto

The Performance

I. Overture; Allegro

Stravinsky’s “Symphony in Three Movements” is a neoclassical composition. Nevertheless, the first movement felt almost as motoric as some music by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975). In-between, though, I could hear some baroque patches lit up. Overall, I found the interpretation to be full of momentum, driven, almost relentless, never “letting go”. The symphony is also a hidden piano concerto, with excellent playing in the solo part (Peter Solomon) in this performance. The one thing I missed to some degree was the triplet rhythm in the repetitive, incomplete triplet sequences. However, it’s very hard not to make this drown in all the accompaniment. Ultimately, I wasn’t quite sure whether a little more in agogics wouldn’t have helped making this movement sound more vivid, lively?

II. Andante — Interlude: L’istesso tempo

The Andante reminded my of a giant puzzle, with tiny bits and pieces from Rococo music. All these were masterfully mixed and arranged by composer. That’s Stravinsky’s genuine, neoclassical style. The Tonhalle Orchestra played this flawlessly, transparently, very clear also in the acciaccaturas: excellent!

III. Con moto

The beginning of the last movement maybe felt a bit heavy. However, around the Piú presto, it picked up momentum, developing a consequent “pull” towards the end. In parts, the musical language seemed to remind me of “Peter and the Wolf” by Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953). I noted some minor flaws towards the end. There were some short-term coordination issues between the two violin voices (sitting at opposite sides of the podium). Maybe a baton, and/or clearer, more precise gestures might have avoided this? Also, towards the very end, the low brass section seemed to be a tad low in the intonation.

However, overall, I felt that this was a very respectable performance, to say the least. And again, when she accepted the applause, I felt that Barbara Hannigan had given everything, physically and emotionally. She may then have shown signs of exhaustion. However, I don’t think this ever shone through during the performance.


For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for; this posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.

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