In NTR Radio’s Zaterdag Matinee concert, Canadian soprano Barabara Hannigan showed her extraordinary gifts as both a singer and conductor, moving seamlessly from one skill to the other in a concert of Stravinsky, Haydn, Mozart and Nono. Hannigan opened the concert with the unaccompanied solo ‘Djamila Boupachà’ from Luigi Nono’s Canti di vita e d’amore (1962), a sombre, haunting poem of hope in times of war and tyranny.  Beginning with a plaintive resonant humming, Hannigan’s ethereal purity and flexibility of sound easily encompassed the soaring and swooping intervals and extreme dynamic changes of Nono’s ghostly protest against political oppression.

Barbara Hannigan © Elmer de Haas
Barbara Hannigan
© Elmer de Haas

Before the last note had faded, Hannigan turned round on the podium to conduct ensemble Ludwig in the opening movement of Haydn’s 49th symphony, “La Passione”(1768). Despite the great stylistic gap between Nono and Haydn, the spacious, elegiac Adagio seemed an appropriate, compassionate response to the vista of mourning and contemplation laid before our gaze in the Nono. Hannigan led the ensemble in a gracious, restrained interpretation, with a very warm sensibility and a large sense of space, her pale arms moving in wide sweeping arabesques like seaweed or a mermaid’s arms glimpsed in the ocean.  While the title “La Passione” was, like many such titles, attached to the symphony after its first performances, and by someone other than the composer, the connotations of sacrifice and sublimation seemed in keeping with the tone set by the Nono, and continued in Anne Trulove’s passionate aria of divided loyalties.

The ensemble Ludwig formed as a collective in response to arts reorganisation in 2012, which resulted in many job losses among musicians. In a creative response, many of those musicians came together to form a flexible collective through which they could support and collaborate with each other and follow their artistic vision. This urge towards integrity and passion in collective music making certainly showed in the united voice of the orchestra, which spoke with a distinctly warm and personal tone.

The Allegro di molto was a triumph of contained energy and precision, with Hannigan’s direction drawing our attention to the wider sweeping phrases and larger architecture of the movement. The Menuet and Trio was elegant and grand, but the final Presto really allowed the discipline and joie de vivre of the ensemble to come to the fore. Playing with great lightness and precision, and a sense of strong tension held tightly in balance, the ensemble again brought our attention to the graceful architecture of the piece rather than the smaller individual features.

The last work in the first half, the aria and caballetta No word from Tom, Anne Trulove’s famous scene from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (1951) was both sung and conducted by Hannigan. This piece demonstrated Hannigan’s formidable musicianship, but to my mind also showed why singers do not habitually conduct, and why for a singer to lead an orchestra in an aria is quite different than for an instrumental concerto soloist to do the same. Leading the introduction – in which a haunting mood of longing and uncertainty is set by the woodwinds – Hannigan faced the audience but turned slightly to one side or another, gesturing to the sides to guide the orchestra. While no possible fault could be found with her stunning vocalism, or the sincerity of her interpretation, the effect of the conducting was that she constantly had to break character, interfering with the direct communication of Anne Trulove’s painful dilemma. Because of this, this most moving of arias became a display of skill, rather than a true communication, despite Hannigan’s obvious commitment. In order to get past this problem I found myself trying to pretend that the character of Anne Trulove was an orchestral conductor, and that I was watching an opera in which the scene was played this way, but it still didn’t work for me.

In the second half, the Mozart concert arias, which Hannigan also conducted while singing, were more successful in this regard. This was because they are less emotionally intense, partly because the texts describe generalisable states rather than distinct characters, and partly because the music itself allowed Hannigan to turn her body less and use smaller gestures, which could be more convincingly integrated into the general performance. Un moto do gioia KV579 was particularly charming, with graceful use of rubato and tons of humour, including a mischievous Queen of the Night inspired cadenza and fine use of comic timing.

The final work in the programme, Stravinsky’s Danses Concertantes (1942) had a new sense of exhilaration, with great verve and energy held in check by a poised and united purpose, especially in the opening and closing marches. With a wide ranging programme, some daring choices from Barbara Hannigan and a fine balance between emotion, exuberance and elegance, this concert was brilliant – not perfect. But that’s probably more interesting anyway.