Barbara Hannigan joined the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle for performances of Berg’s Three Fragments from Wozzeck and Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre. Flanking these pieces were Webern’s short orchestral work Six Pieces for Orchestra and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Rattle, Hannigan and the LSO proved to be a formidable team, with impressive performances of the Berg and Ligeti.

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

Starting off with Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra, the LSO immediately left their mark on the evening. With a performance that was both transparent and thrilling, the sharpness of the music was always at the forefront. These short pieces were composed by Webern in the first decade of the 20th century, although he revised the orchestration almost 20 years later. Webern dedicated the work to the memory of his mother, and in particular the fourth movement, a funeral march, is audibly full of grief. This funeral march is a massively affecting piece of music. Its climax is overwhelming, both in its violent orchestration and in its emotional content. The LSO’s performance was absolutely stunning; they not only played it faultlessly, but managed to convey the emotional depth of the Six Pieces convincingly.  

Berg’s Three Fragments from Wozzeck is no less emotionally charged than Webern’s Six Pieces. Barbara Hannigan joined the orchestra in a blood-red dress, singing the part of Marie. It was clear from the outset that the LSO’s performance would be as impressive as that of Webern. With translucent strings and dramatic percussion, the March of the first movement was given a profound reading.

Hannigan was convincing throughout, being able to sing intimately and carefully, but also effortlessly tackling intensely overpowering sections. Her back was turned towards the audience when she was not singing, allowing the focus to be on Simon Rattle and the LSO when the instrumental music took over. The orchestra’s performance was no less dynamic than Hannigan’s, doing justice to the complexities of this remarkable piece.   

György Ligeti’s Le grand macabre is, I think, one of the most underrated operas of the 20th century. Musically exciting and demanding, and with one of the funniest libretti around, it is a shame it does not get performed more often. Thankfully Hannigan has been championing the work, and its short Mysteries of the Macabre suite, arranged by Elgar Howarth, is one of her trademark performance pieces. In recent years she has even performed it as a soprano and conductor, showing off her skills in more than one way.

Dressed as a schoolgirl (and being forced to give her chewing gum to Simon Rattle before starting the performance), Hannigan took her performance one step further than in the Berg. She was the constant centre of attention, both with her incredible musical abilities and her hilarious performance. She tackled the demanding coloratura arias of with apparent ease, making the nonsensical text (“Kekerike! Kokoroko! Kukuriku! Kakarika!”) almost appear reasonable.

Rattle and the LSO were not merely the extras in Hannigan’s performance, they participated as well. With the orchestra taking over the role of the chorus (in an outcry of “What did you say?”), and Rattle being pushed away by Hannigan to take over his conducting duties, while at another point during the performance he expressed exasperation over “Prime Minister Farage?!”, which elicited a big laugh from the audience. The rousing applause after the finale was well-deserved by Hannigan, Rattle and the LSO.

The Rite of Spring is one of those pieces of classical music that never seems to lose its appeal. Many decades after its infamous première, it remains a popular piece in the concert hall, and with good reason. Simon Rattle has both recorded and conducted it many times, although he is far from becoming complacent. This evening's performance was somewhat disappointing, however, especially when compared to the quality of the other music we heard.

It started off well, with bassoonist Rachel Gough’s profound solo. Overall the LSO was musically impressive, and at times incredibly passionate, but there was some punch lacking in the reading. After such intense performances of Webern, Berg and Ligeti, one would expect a similar kind of intensity in Stravinsky, yet this was not to be found. Rattle’s interpretation perhaps did not lend itself to this kind of performance, as it seemed to lack the transparency of the performance of Webern, and the rhythms were, to my taste, not emphasized enough, which made the piece sound somewhat milder than is preferable.