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Barbara Hannigan: "Concert and Documentary"

DVD Button Selections by Fauré, Ligeti, Mozart and Rossini. Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Hannigan (conductor and soloist). “I’m a Creative Animal,” director: Seiler. Accentus Music ACC 20327. Concert: 72 mins., subtitled. Documentary: 51 mins.

Recordings Hannigan Documentary Cover 1115

INTERVIEWED IN I'M A CREATIVE ANIMAL, the documentary portrait on this DVD, Simon Rattle observes that Barbara Hannigan has “technique and brains to burn.” It seems like an easily dismissible accolade, the kind of thing that routinely emerges from talking heads in video hagiographies. But the musical portion of this disc, presenting the Canadian musician as conductor and soprano soloist in a 2014 Lucerne Festival concert, proves that Rattle is dead-on. 

The concert finds Hannigan leading the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in an eclectic but oddly coherent program: it feels like a seventy-one-minute tour of her musical world. 

The orchestra-only selections leave no doubt about Hannigan’s qualifications as a conductor. She works without a baton; this combined with the camera’s dogged attention makes it sometime seem like we’re watching a danced interpretation of the music. Not since the heyday of Leonard Bernstein has a video asked us so insistently to heed a conductor’s emotive display. But the music-making itself attests to the effectiveness of Hannigan’s podium technique. She emphasizes the warmth rather than the brio of Rossini’s La Scala di Seta overture but brings out the exuberance of Ligeti’s folk-influenced Concert Românesc (excellent work here from concertmaster Thomas Gould in the concluding czardas’s spinning fiddle line). And she leads as tender a performance of Fauré’s enchanting Pelléas et Mélisande suite as I’ve ever heard. 

But no question the chief interest here is in the selections that show Hannigan doing double duty as soprano and conductor. Her strategy becomes clear in the opening moments of “Vado, ma dove? O Dei!,” the first of three Mozart concert arias on the program. Hannigan gives the downbeat to the orchestra, then in the same motion, turns around, her spread arms now becoming a singer’s welcoming gesture to her audience. As she sings, she uses both her arms and her torso to give orchestral cues. All of the Mozart selections benefit from the sparkle of Hannigan’s high lyric soprano and the firmness of her technique: every note and (especially) every trill is sounded exactly in place. The most successful of the three is Susanna’s alternate aria “Un moto di gioa”; its sprightly character well suited to the singer’s gifts and the performing circumstances. If I am somewhat less impressed with “Vado, ma dove?” and “Misera, dove son?” especially in their slow sections, it’s because I feel that Hannigan’s conductorial duties impede the legato line of her singing: the bar lines here tend to make their presence felt. 

For Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre, the concert’s pièce de resistance, Hannigan discards her concert wear for a dominatrix’s black leather-and-latex outfit and a black Louise Brooks wig. Here, the need to cue her forces enhances rather than hinders her vocalism. Delivering Ligeti’s staccato lines while manically cuing the band, Hannigan seems to live deep inside the music, embodying it as much as overseeing it. It’s a riveting spectacle and an extraordinary display of virtuosity.

The intriguing persona that Hannigan presents in the concert hall whets the appetite for the accompanying documentary, directed by Barbara Seiler. I’m a Creative Animal presents Hannigan in rehearsal, in a Lucerne master class, in a catch-up session with her voice teacher Neil Semer, on the jogging path and in her temporary Lucerne apartment (an accomplished cook, she travels with her own knives). The documentary shows the tremendous amount of focus and hard work that allows Hannigan to sustain her career. But little of it is surprising: the woman we see — cool, serious, and, despite a sprinkling of self-deprecating humor, almost eerily self-possessed — is very much the person we’ve encountered on the concert stage. For all of the filmmakers’ access to Hannigan’s offstage activities, it’s the concert footage that gives us the most intimate look at this fascinating performer. —Fred Cohn 

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