Confident and poised like Klimt’s Judith and the Head of Holofernes, Barbara Hannigan joined pianist Reinbert de Leeuw for a Second Viennese School recital at the Park Avenue Armory. Hannigan’s interpretations were spot-on, proving that she is undoubtedly this generation’s foremost performing expert on the music of fin de siècle Vienna.

Barbara Hannigan at Park Avenue Armory © Da Ping Luo
Barbara Hannigan at Park Avenue Armory
© Da Ping Luo

As a young 20-something, Arnold Schoenberg indulged in a hypersensitive, chromatic approach to writing music. However, his early vocal works, like the Vier Lieder, Op.2 sung on this program, predate the boundary-pushing sounds of Pierrot Lunaire, Das Buch der hängenden Gärten, and the Second String Quartet. Schoenberg selected texts by Richard Dehmel and Johannes Schlaf for the Vier Lieder that are dark and sexual, glittered with mentions of hair kissing, dead foliage, and floating limbs.

Hannigan was at her most majestic in Schoenberg’s third song, Erhebung (Elevation), which soars wildly through a minute-long crescendo. Her versatility has clearly spawned from the diverse repertoire that she has championed. Additionally, her understanding of various vocal styles and her ability to control the use of vibrato make her more conscious than many other singers in the public arena. Hannigan demonstrated not only these artistic skills, but also a literary expertise as she embodied each poem’s essence throughout the evening.

The first half of the program was rounded out with two collections by Schoenberg’s infamous students: Anton Webern's Fünf Lieder nach Gedichten von Richard Dehmel (Five Songs on Poems by Richard Dehmel) and Alban Berg’s Sieben frühe Lieder (Seven Early Songs). Prior to their indoctrination into the Church of Dodecaphony, both composers were seeking ways to break tonal conventions while maintaining an incredibly expressive musical beauty.

Reinbert de Leeuw and Barbara Hannigan © Da Ping Luo
Reinbert de Leeuw and Barbara Hannigan
© Da Ping Luo

The poems set by Webern and Berg have an unusual, omniscient aura whispering: nothing is quite as it seems. Take for instance the words of Dehmel–

The world falls silent, your blood begins to resound; into its bright abyss sinks the distant day (“At the Shore”, 1896)

–or Theodor Storm–

She used to be such a wild thing, and now she walks, deep in thought; she carries her summer hat in her hand, enduring quietly the heat of the sun, not knowing what to begin (“Die Nachtigall”, 1864).

The storytellers are suspcious and anxious, among other things, so Hannigan smartly characterized her performance by emphasizing Webern’s and Berg’s musical exaggerations, and with solid pitch – which isn’t easy for these melodies.

If I had a time machine, I would introduce the dating app Tinder to fin de siècle Vienna. After all, Schoenberg married his composition teacher Alexander von Zemlinsky’s sister, Mathilde, but not before a young Alma Schindler “swiped right” on Alexander. Hannigan sang Zemlinsky’s “Da waren zwei Kinder” (There were two children), Op.7 which gives a pretty accurate description of their personal relationship–

There were two children, young and good, but their blood flowed all too quickly … Thereupon it came to dying, straight into doom – they could not contain their hearts (“Volksweise” from “Ein Sommer”, pub. 1900, Christian Morgenstern)

Schindler soon after married the conductor Gustav Mahler.

Hannigan sang four of Mahler’s songs, three from the set of Fünf Lieder (Five Songs), written the year before her husband Gustav died, and the song Licht in der Nacht, written five years after his death. Mahler’s songs push the boundaries of tonality like her contemporaries, especially evident when snaking chromatically in Laue Sommernacht. Hannigan sang longingly–

Was not our entire life simply groping, simply searching? There, into its darkness, tumbled your light, Love (“Gefunde”, Otto Julius Bierbaum)

–while ravishing in a self-assured sense of lyricism.

Reinbert de Leeuw and Barbara Hannigan © Da Ping Luo
Reinbert de Leeuw and Barbara Hannigan
© Da Ping Luo

Hannigan’s selection of Zemlinsky songs on this recital spanned the period around those Alma years (pub. 1897-1901). Hannigan conveyed, with such ease, the beauty and terror of the likes of “Da warn zwei Kinder”, “Schlaf nur ein”–

Is that false girl talking about me, she who thrust me out of her mind? (Paul Heyse)

–, and “Entbietung”–

And when my fervour swells, with great might it drives the red blossoms and your blood high into the highest midnight (Dehmel).

If he chose these texts to set because he truly related to the narrator, the 20-something Zemlinsky was just paranoid and horny.

Back in 1875, when Zemlinsky and Schoenberg were infants and Berg, Webern, and Mahler had yet to be conceived, Hugo Wolf was writing his 51 Mignon (Goethe) Lieder. Hannigan concluded the program with four, all of which have arousing piano accompaniments and are pungent with lyricism. Goethe’s words evoke images isolation and pastoral idealism – perhaps literally Caspar David Friedrich’s German landscapes in the ending song Kennst du das Land.

The thoughts in my head in the days following this recital have been: 1) Hannigan’s voice is fire, and 2) Hannigan's genius is beyond this earth.