In these days of wireless earbuds, streams and podcasts, the notion of people gathering to hear a lone classical singer (with a pianist) perform densely structured art songs in a foreign tongue seems almost laughably quaint.
Yet the vocal recital, as a performance genre, is still alive. And one of the most memorable recitals I've witnessed in a long time sits on this page, in a condensed form, thanks to the extraordinary soprano Barbara Hannigan and her accompanist Reinbert de Leeuw.
The night before this Tiny Desk concert, the two musicians gave a beautiful and intense recital at Washington's Kennedy Center. The songs, all in German, came from a heady period in Vienna, when music was transitioning from the swells of romanticism to the uncharted waters of modernism. Four of those songs make up this Tiny Desk performance. The bonus here is that these impassioned dispatches become even more intimate.
Consider the opening song, Alexander Zemlinsky's "Empfängnis" (Conception). The harmonies are sweet, but almost too rich, like overripe fruit, when Hannigan sings lines like, "Und wie ich sehnend meine Arme breite" (And as I open my arms with longing). You can hear the end of a musical era.
An indefatigable champion of new and modern music, Hannigan (who is also a conductor) has given the world premieres of more than 80 pieces. The voice is simply gorgeous — silvery, buttery-smooth throughout the registers, with crystalline top notes emerging from thin air and charged with emotion.
In Alma Mahler's "Licht in der Nacht" (Light in the Night), Hannigan taps into the mysterious sparkle of a little yellow star twinkling through black skies as de Leeuw's piano explores wayward harmonies. Hugo Wolf's "Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt" (Only One Who Knows Longing) is a hymn to the yearning heart. De Leeuw explains that the key of G minor, in which the song is written, never materializes. It's all about the longing for G minor.
The final song, "Schenk mir deinen goldenen Kamm" (the first music by Arnold Schoenberg to grace the Tiny Desk), offers a double dose of sensuality. Hannigan's beautiful middle register and creamy phrasing paint the scene: Jesus asks Mary Magdalene for her comb because it will remind him every morning that she once kissed his hair. Hannigan calls the song "erotic" and she delivers on that feeling when, at the end, she cries out the name "Magdalena" with a lustrous, silken tone, touched with anguish.
Hannigan told the audience that her Kennedy Center recital felt like "a sacred moment of people coming together in very deep concentration." At this Tiny Desk recital, it happened all over again.
- Alexander Zemlinsky: "Empfängnis"
- Alma Mahler: "Licht in der Nacht"
- Hugo Wolf: "Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt"
- Arnold Schoenberg: "Schenk mir deinen goldenen Kamm"
Barbara Hannigan (soprano), Reinbert de Leeuw (piano)
Producers: Tom Huizenga, Morgan Noelle Smith; Creative Director: Bob Boilen; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Morgan Noelle Smith, Alyse Young; Page Turner: Suraya Mohamed; Production Assistant: Salvatore Maicki; Photo: Jennifer Kerrigan/NPR
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