If time travel had been available in Papa Haydn’s day, whatever would he have made of one of his “Paris” symphonies being paired with an operatic suite involving the exploration of overt female sexuality? The chances are that he might well have snorted a little in keen anticipation. Why? One clue lies in his choice of title for the second movement of his Symphony no. 86 in D major: an extremely rare instance of a Capriccio (which he used on only one other occasion), coupled with the highly unusual marking of Largo. A seeming contradiction in terms until the irony is revealed. This is a composer who could not be outdone in wit and inventiveness and who was happiest when engaged in musical mischief-making, cocking a snook at the musical Establishment.

Barbara Hannigan
© Musacchio & Ianniello | Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia

Naughty, naughty, contemporary commentators cried on the first appearance of Lulu, a creation of the German Expressionist playwright Frank Wedekind. Having already traversed masturbation and child abuse in an earlier play, Wedekind in his next two stage dramas takes his central femme fatale through a succession of lovers before she ends up as a prostitute in London where she, and her lesbian admirer, Countess Geschwitz, are both murdered by Jack the Ripper. A few decades later she then reappears as the heroine of Berg’s eponymous opera. Quite enough steaminess there for one concert evening.

The suite that Berg made in 1934, three years before his unfinished opera was actually premiered, is a powerful piece of scene-painting. The power and drama were certainly present in this performance given by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Barbara Hannigan, with key instrumental players emerging from the shadows of a fetid jungle like an assortment of wild cats, all claws drawn. But in this music you also need to feel that the carpet is about to be pulled from beneath your feet. With the swift basic tempo Hannigan chose for the opening Andante the sense of sleaze, of stockings being slowly rolled down and legs teasingly angled, yielded instead to the overt theatricality of the individual moments. This score seethes with unease: muted trumpets signifying sinister intent and string ostinatos at the start of the second movement collapsing into an almost savage eruption of the lower brass. The lipstick applied to the powdered face comes in the extra touches of colour from vibraphone, harp, piano and alto sax. It is difficult not to be sucked into the vortex.

Then comes this evening’s coup de théâtre: at the start of the third movement Hannigan turns to face the audience for the “Song of Lulu” while still maintaining sufficient control to give direction to her players, her long bare arms almost enveloping not only those on stage but her entire audience. Her first statement is part of Lulu’s manifesto, a justification of her free-spirited nature. She sings: “Although for my sake a man may kill himself or kill others, My value still remains what it was.” In the fifth and final movement she assumes the role of Countess Geschwitz and gently calls “Lulu! My Angel!” in a dying tribute. All this is done with astonishing precision and conviction, Hannigan’s unique force of personality energising her musical collaborators.

And for the first dozen bars of Gershwin’s Girl Crazy Suite, with which the second half concluded, you could almost have been listening to a continuation of the Berg until tonality finally asserted itself. Quite why it was deemed necessary to provide acoustic enhancement for Hannigan at this stage remains a mystery: the voice is so laser-like, as she demonstrated in the Berg, and so easily able to ride a large orchestra that amplification produced a slightly synthetic effect. Not surprisingly, the LSO was in its element, displaying its long pedigree in musical theatre, effortlessly translating the vibes coming from Hannigan’s gently swaying body into the most beguiling rhythmic diversions, and then, for the penultimate stanza of “Embraceable You”, adding with its own collective voice suitable reinforcements to the vocal line.

Some music is highly dangerous. Shortly after the Lulu Suite was first performed in Berlin, with Erich Kleiber conducting, it joined a long list of “degenerate” pieces proscribed by the Nazis. Less than two decades later Ligeti’s Concerto Românesc, which opened the evening’s proceedings, suffered a similar fate. The composer himself explains: “In the fourth movement of my Romanian Concerto there is a passage in which an F sharp is heard in the context of F major. This was reason enough for the apparatchiks responsible for the arts to ban the entire piece.” It says much for the period of enlightened despots in the 18th century that Haydn’s subversiveness in writing a Capriccio second movement, in which there is a succession of false starts, wrong turnings taken and harmonic surprises sprung, did not result in musical prohibition.