Barbara Hannigan made her much anticipated Koerner Hall debut last night in an all German program accompanied by Reinbert de Leeuw. The first half of the program consisted of three sets; Schoenberg’s Vier Lieder Op. 2, Webern’s Fünf Lieder nach Gedicten von Richard Dehmel and Berg’s Sieben Frühe Lieder. All of these cycles were composed between 1899 and 1907 and there are many similarities. They are highly lyrical and essentially tonal and they mostly set poetry of a fairly pastoral nature. It would be churlish to complain about a performance of the utmost artistry (by both performers) of important works that likely no-one else would program in a major Toronto recital. That said, it was all quite lovely but it was a bit samey. Occasionally, especially in the Webern, some slightly different moods would emerge e.g in the third stanza of Ascension where it gets a bit more dramatic or in Heile Nacht, where there are echoes of Perrot Lunaire, but generally it was all rather in one place musically and emotionally.
After the interval we got some Zemlinsky songs; selections from Op. 2, Op. 5 and Op.7. These were a bit more varied with some humour in Tiefe Sehnsucht and the just plain weird Da waren zwei Kinder. Hannigan showed that she can pretty much vary her intonation and colour at will here. If I dare use one of her colour metaphors, if the first half had been all silver here we were getting something darker and earthier. Next up were some Alma Mahler songs. These are pretty and quite sentimental; almost like a last echo of an earlier German Romanticism. The final set was Wolf’s Mignon Lieder; settings of Goethe including the super well known Kennst du das Land? Here we really are back in high German Romanticism though the songs were written only a few years earlier than the rest of the program. Here Hannigan showed complete mastery of the genre, shaping the line to the text expertly and using colours in a very beautiful and skilful way. It was classic Lieder singing of a high order.
It was very much an evening of serious high art. There was no attempt to communicate with the audience other than the music. In fact there wasn’t a word of introduction or commentary and there was no encore. It was a Liederabend that Gustav Mahler would have approved! But you don’t have to take my word for it, the whole performance can be watched on Royal Conservatory’s website.