Classical review: Barbara Hannigan, LPO, Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall, London

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Hannigan dazzles in Berg's Lulu Suite

"For us, this is going to be the most demanding programme of the year," said Vladimir Jurowski in his prefatory chat. But the concert’s Thirties modernism would not, he said, be so demanding for listeners.

Underlying Anton Webern’s Variations for Orchestra, Opus 30 are strict canon techniques, with four-note mirror-image segments in tone-row form. But Jurowski’s advice was to listen to it ‘physically, not intellectually’, and what emerged from this seven-minute masterpiece was as much a visual experience as a musical one, suggesting points and lines moving slowly through space as in a complex mobile; it requires – and got here – immaculate solo performances from every member of the ensemble.

Alban Berg’s Symphonic Pieces from the Opera “Lulu” were composed as an interim taster for the opera he did not live to finish, and the intense expressiveness which pervades this intricate creation was splendidly brought out by the LPO. But the main event began during the second piece, as the extraordinary Barbara Hannigan strolled on, lounged against a wall like a high-heeled hooker at a bus-stop, then prowled through the orchestra as though searching for prey. This Canadian soprano’s stage presence is always mesmerising whatever she does, but when she shook off her furs – revealing a skimpy nightdress – to begin ‘Lulu’s Song’, the physical provocation was both compounded and counteracted by the coloratura purity of her singing (and by the psychopathic innocence of her song). Her concluding number – fifteen heartfelt words from her fictional lesbian lover - had comparable impact.

Then came Bartok’s majestic Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste in which a piano – used very much as it is in his piano concertos – serves as the star element of the percussion. The long melodic lines of the Beethovenian fugue interwove gracefully, before reappearing upside-down in pizzicato form; the nocturnal susurrations of the Adagio, and the crazy finale in which the celeste-player joins the piano for a four-hander, were delivered with bright assurance.

Borrowing Bartok’s idea of dividing the massed strings into two equal ‘voices’, Martinu’s Double Concerto for two String Orchestras, Piano, and Timpani may not have the same diamond-hard brilliance, but it too showcased the versatile excellence of pianist Catherine Edwards, who deservedly got the biggest cheer of the evening. In London this charismatic musician is usually confined to the relatively Cinderella role of ‘orchestral pianist’. It’s time we heard Edwards for real, as a proper concerto soloist.

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