Sunday 30 October 2022

Barbara Hannigan conducts Stravinsky & Knussen as part of a collaborative project between the Royal Academy of Music and the Juilliard School

Alexandra Beason, Barbara Hannigan, Lisa Dafydd, Elizabeth Green at the Royal Academy of Music
Alexandra Beason, Barbara Hannigan, Lisa Dafydd, Elizabeth Green at the Royal Academy of Music

Stravinsky, Delage, Knussen; students from Royal Academy of Music and the Juilliard School, Barbara Hannigan, Charlotte Corderoy; Duke's Hall, Royal Academy of Music
Reviewed 28 October 2022

Responsiveness and accuracy, poise and enjoyment, Barbara Hannigan directed students in a wonderfully intelligent and engaging lunchtime recital

For 20 years, the Royal Academy of Music and the Juilliard School have enjoyed a close relationship, collaborating on projects as diverse as co-commissioning Peter Maxwell Davies' opera Kommilitonen!, recording Gabrieli's brass music and performing with Elton John at Radio City Music Hall in New York. The latest such collaboration culminated in a concert in the Academy's Duke's Hall on Friday 29 October 2022, when Barbara Hannigan conducted an orchestra of musicians from the Academy and the Juilliard, Hannigan's first residency at the Academy. The programme consisted of Stravinsky's Concerto in E flat 'Dumbarton Oaks', Two Poems of Balmont, Three Japanese Lyrics and Octet, Maurice Delage's Quatre Poèmes Hindous, and Oliver Knussen's Requiem: Songs for Sue. The soprano soloists were Alexandra Beason (Stravinsky), Lisa Dafydd (Delage) and Elizabeth Green (Knussen). Assistant conductor Charlotte Corderoy conducted the Delage, and Barbara Hannigan also payed tribute to another assistant conductor (whose name I did not catch) who had done a lot of background work on the Knussen piece.

Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks began with a nice combination of lyricism and pointed rhythms, crisp and energetic without feeling driven. Throughout the concert, I enjoyed the orchestra's clean, lithe sound and the players' combination of responsiveness and accuracy. Things relaxed in the second movement, but rhythms stayed tight with a middle section which almost hinted at the Romantic, with wind solos over muted strings. the finale was notable for the energy and enjoyment the players brought.

Stravinsky's Two poems of Balmont, for soprano (Alexandra Beason) and chamber ensemble, set poems by Konstantin Balmont, a Russian poet much set by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. Stravinsky's settings were written for soprano and piano in 1911, but in the 1950s he orchestrated them to use the same instrumental line-up as the Three Japanese Lyrics. Here they featured lovely delicate textures and perky rhythms with a lyrical soprano solo, sung in a haunting manner by Beason, pin sharp and intriguing. The whole thing had a clarity of texture combined with hints of French influence.

In 1912, Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire premiered in Berlin, and composers Stravinsky and Varese were present. They reported back to composers in Paris and the result was an interest in writing for soprano and small ensemble. This led to a concert in 1914 inaugurating the Société musicale indépendente where Delage's Quatre Poèmes Hindous and Stravinsky's Three Japanese Lyrics were premiered alongside music by Ravel and Schmitt.

Delage's Quatre Poèmes Hindous, written for soprano (Lisa Dafydd) and chamber ensemble (here conducted by Charlotte Corderoy) are the product of Delage's visit to India and the songs set four poems from diverse sources (original Indian poetry alongside Heine) translated into French. Madras: une belle featured a lovely flute solo over spare strings, with a sinuous soprano line around which the instruments were weaving, all very evocative. Lahore: un sapin isolé featured intriguing exotic textures including pizzicato slides on cello and haunting viola melody, with a fluid solo from Dafydd. Bénarés: Naissance de Bouddha was fast, busy and full of colour, and finally Jéypur: si vous pensez à elle featured the voice amidst gorgeous textures. Throughout Lisa Dafydd sang with great poise, hints of seductive line and cool luxuriance.

Stravinsky's Three Japanese Lyrics set translations of Japanese lyrics for soprano (Alexandra Beason) and chamber ensemble. The first was cool and somewhat gnomic, lovely yet without the luxuriance of the Delage. The second was fast and vivid, and the third slow and spare with sinuous lines from instruments and voice.

Stravinsky's Octet dates from 1923, one of his defining neo-classical works it also hints at the musical Paris of the 1920s. The opening Sinfonia began lyrically and surprisingly gentle, quite serious with a lovely clarity to the playing, before becoming faster and perkier. This was playing of great acuity, without making too much of a point. The Tema con variazioni moved between the mysterious, the spare and vivid flourishes, covering a remarkable array of styles in a short time. The Finale was beautifully crisp with tight rhythms over a running bassoon line.

We ended with Oliver Knussen's Requiem: Songs for Sue, written in the wake of the death of Knussen's wife Sue and originating in his setting of a text by Rilke originally selected by composer Alexander Goehr for a memorial booklet for Sue Knussen. The final work sets texts by Emily Dickinson, Antonio Machado, WH Auden and Rilke for soprano (Elizabeth Green) and large chamber ensemble.

Elizabeth Green sang with great poise, using a rich hued soprano voice whose lovely lower register was very much showed off by the music. Following an opening serious outburst from Green supported by vivid energy in the ensemble, the music became slow and serious, with some hints of French inspiration in the orchestral textures, intriguing to hear after the Stravinsky and Delage. The Machado setting whose off Green's smoky soprano but with strong words too, and wonderful delicate instrumental textures, yet things developed both in energy and drama as the text brought out the poet's intense anxiety. The setting of words by WH Auden (a favourite of both Oliver and Sue Knussen) moved from spare, magical textures to something more intense, yet always with a sense of the words. Finally, the Rilke fragment, haunting and haunted.

This was a consummate performance all round, one of great maturity.

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