The title of the movement is “Entrückung”, the text by Stefan George, the score to the String Quartet by Arnold Schoenberg, the concert part of the New Creations Festival curated by George Benjamin, a late-afternoon incarnation of the Canadian Opera Company’s free noon-hour concert series. Benjamin was not just programming but maybe also illuminating Barbara Hannigan, the soloist in the last two movements of that quartet and his star in Written on Skin.
Maybe “collaborator” is a more politically correct word than “star”, but I can’t avoid that four letter word. Hannigan is very humble, speaking of herself as a singer and a conductor. A word that’s conspicuous for its omission is “actor” (or actress if you want to use an older less PC construction), considering Hannigan’s gifts, as in her Lulu that’s still available online.
At one point the rapture (or “Entrückung”) of the song is expressed in terms that seem to epitomize Hannigan and her artistry.
Ich löse mich in tönen, kreisend, webend,
Ungründigen danks und unbenamten lobes
Dem grossen atem wunschlos mich ergebend.
[or in other words]
I am dissolved in swirling sound, weaving
fathomless thanks with unnamed praise
yielding wishless to the mighty breath.
It echoes Schopenhauer’s view of the divinity of art, and Wagner’s Liebestod and the world-breath with which one finds ultimate unity. Watching Hannigan emerge from the midst of the Toronto Symphony’s Chamber Soloists (Jonathan Crow, Peter Seminovs, Teng Li and Joseph Johnson), beginning to sing only in the third movement, it’s as though she verbalizes and articulates what’s latent in the music. The movement’s conclusion is a hymn to art.
In einem meer kristalinen glanzes schwimme –
ich bin ein funke nur vom keilgen feuer
Ich bin ein dröhnen nur der heiligen stimme.
[or in other words]
In a sea of crystal splendour—
I am only a spark of the holy fire,
I am only a roar of the holy voice.
We were genuinely in a realm of chamber music rather than the operatic spaces where I’ve usually encountered Hannigan’s work. With a few exceptions, she sang more like a lieder singer than an opera singer, rarely pushing beyond a gentle mezzo-piano that sailed comfortably through the string sounds arrayed around her. There were a few wonderfully climactic phrases, presented with such authenticity that one felt the entire work pointed organically to that climax. And although Crow has a sound apt for a concertmaster with a strong & supple line when he wants to assert himself, he too mostly opted for subtlety and self-effacement. It’s a quartet that begins conventionally enough, the vocalism saved for the last two movements.
Chausson’s Chanson Perpétuelle followed, the TSO quartet and Hannigan augmented by the addition of Liz Upchurch at the piano. This piece from the 1890s is the oldest composition I’ve ever heard from Hannigan: an artist with whom I associate edgy performance & challenging composition. This too was an occasion for understatement, Chausson being a composer who gives the singer the eloquence of a poet rather than the extroverted mannerisms of a virtuoso.
In case you’re wondering, yes Hannigan can play it that way too. But she chose to honour the text and the occasion.
New Creations Festival has just begun. For further information visit the TSO’s website.