Thematically and musically, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra program conducted by Barbara Hannigan on 17th September could be called a chiaroscuro. Light levity came by way of Haydn’s Symphony no. 26 in D minor – which, despite its appliquéd subtitle, “Lamentatione”, offers a joyous account of the Easter Passion, the holiest celebration of the Christian calendar. The composer assigned Gregorian melodies to the wind players in the opening Allegro assai con spirito, which Hannigan drew out with feathery elegance and contrasted against lean, hard-charging strings. The spiritual, hopeful tone of the religious chant was picked up in the Adagio by concertmaster Sara Trobäck, who rendered it sleekly in her ornamentation. Hannigan emphasized precision and sharp rhythmic clarity in the concluding Minuet, with astonishingly enveloping legato punctuated by slashing chords. It gave the impression of a country dance interrupted by a thunderclap. The three-movement symphony ended abruptly, as it always does, but this fine rendering suggests it should be heard more often.

Barbara Hannigan
© Marco Borggreve

The rest of the concert dwelled in darkness – specifically, in the complicated relationships between parents and children. Hannigan gave pride of place to her fellow Canadian, Claude Vivier (1948-1983), whose rediscovery has become something of a cause célèbre in certain new-music circles since his untimely death. In Wo bist du, Licht? and Lonely Child, both heard here, Vivier showed a keen ability to fuse the beautiful and the grotesque, as languid vocal lines are paired with unsettling orchestral writing that reflects inner turmoil. Wo bist du, Licht? begins with the string players dramatically depressing their bows, creating a pulsating, agitated tremolo punctuated by the staccato interruption of a bass drum. The effect is unpleasant, but it captures the dissociative desperation of the piece’s worldview. Vivier spliced in taped excerpts of speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, along with contemporaneous news reports about the Vietnam War, seemingly to underscore the urgency of a hope-starved world.

Mezzo-soprano Tuuri Dede sang the complicated live musical text with remarkable ease, from the dramatically sustained pitches in the opening bars to the onomatopoetic, invented language into which the narration ultimately devolves. Vivier is said to have created this manner of communication in his unhappy boyhood – during which time he was adopted, surrendered and then readopted by the same family. It reappears in Lonely Child, where it received equal weight from the expressive Greek soprano Aphrodite Patoulidou, who displayed a shimmering, transparent timbre and sense of dramatic connection that called to mind conductor Hannigan’s own gripping style as a singing actress. Restricted to the podium here, she matched her soloist with a tension-filled reading of Vivier’s more harmonically conventional score.

Vivier never knew his birthparents and had a contentious relationship with his adoptive family. By contrast, Ferruccio Busoni memorialized his own mother in the ravishingly Impressionistic Berceuse élégiaque, which opened the evening. Conducting without a baton, Hannigan’s hands swept like a gentle breeze across the podium, drawing out the sneaky tonal variations beneath F major theme.

This performance was reviewed from the GSO Play live video stream