For those who did not yet realise it, Barbara Hannigan is an exceptional (as in the original Latin except – ‘taken out’ – without any connotation of good or bad) artist. There is simply no one like her around. The Canadian soprano was never happy just singing the standard operatic repertoire. She quickly developed an interest in Lieder, in modern and contemporary works. She started conducting. And singing while conducting. Now, here she is, leading a major ensemble – while singing from the podium – in Mahler's Symphony no. 4 in G major, a score that many more experienced conductors are leery to tackle. Truth be told, she was greatly helped in her endeavour by her special relation with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble with which she shares a great affinity. (In 2019 she started her tenure as the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor.)

Barbara Hannigan
© Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra

It’s not uncommon to preface Mahler’s Fourth with a symphony by Haydn or Mozart, not only because the G Major is shorter than his others and needs a preamble to fill a normal performance’s “prescribed” timespan, but also because it is also perceived to be Mahler’s most “classical” symphony. If a Haydn work is picked for such a programme, it is usually one of his late London Symphonies, an example of how “far” Haydn’s compositional style went. But Hannigan selected one of the earlier “Sturm und Drang” opuses, namely the Symphony no. 44 in E minor. With its abrupt opening motif and the longing song that immediately follows, there is a “dramatic”, pre-Romantic feeling in this music that could represent the first steps on a bridge towards Mahlerian music. The overall presence of Austrian folkloric inflections, combined with a certain sense of unaccepted loss pervading the Andante (it’s said that the symphony is nicknamed “Trauer” (Mourning) nickname because Haydn asked for the slow movement to be played at his funeral) could also be perceived as Mahlerian traits avant la lettre. In a performance that moved forward with unrelenting drive, Hannigan underlined not only the forward-looking segments but also those anchored in history: the canon between upper and lower strings in the Minuet; the contrapuntal essays in the stormy Finale. In addition, she paid special attention to those passages where the string-intoned melodies were imbued with vocal warmth.

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
© Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra

In her rendition of Mahler’s Fourth, the serenity of the Adagio's gradually unfolding variations seemed to extend to the entire work. Tensions, shrieks and angst were mostly subdued and the dynamic contrasts and permanently shifting rhythms did not feature prominently enough. The storms in the first movement were rather muted. The discordant solo violin, symbolising the medieval “Freund Hein” dancing his way, in odd chromatic steps, towards the abyss, was rather buried in the overall sound, instead of leading it. The focus was instead placed on the intricacies of the inner voices' lacework and on the passages of consonant beauty, such as the enchanting combinations of three voices – lower strings and, later, an oboe, cor anglais, horn trio – in the third movement.

The moment when the conductor, finally reaching the apex of the entire construction, started singing the first words of the poem drawn from Des Knaben Wunderhorn – “Wir geniessen die himmlische Freuden” (We enjoy the pleasures of heaven) – was outstanding. Hannigan’s voice was assured, warm and pure. Her gestures became less precise, but it did not matter; the instrumentalists knew very well how to proceed. All doubts related to the rendering of the previous movements abruptly subsided. At that point, nothing was more important than the floating, soaring sounds. The almost last words of the intoned poem – “There is no music on earth that can be compared to ours” – seemed more accurate than ever.

This performance was reviewed from the video stream on GSO Play