Barbara Hannigan sings and conducts ‘Crazy Girl Crazy’

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COMPOSERS: Berg,Berio,Gershwin
LABELS: Alpha Classics
ALBUM TITLE: Crazy Girl Crazy
WORKS: Berio: Sequenza III; Berg: Lulu Suite; Gershwin: Girl Crazy Suite
PERFORMER: Ludwig Orchestra/Barbara Hannigan (conductor and soprano); plus film by Mathieu Amalric


Crazy Girl Crazy is an album that – just like its muse and protagonist – flouts the rules. Berio, Berg and Gershwin aren’t ‘meant’ to be jointly programmable; disturbingly semiotic solo vocal music isn’t ‘meant’ to work alongside lush, jazzy orchestral scores; orchestral players aren’t ‘meant’ to break into chorus; and, above all, soprano soloists aren’t ‘meant’ to turn about-face to conduct the orchestra – while delivering with aching beauty one of the most challenging arias in the repertoire.

All this Barbara Hannigan achieves with artless poise and musical intelligence in her debut recording as conductor-soprano, alongside willing co-adventurers the Ludwig Orchestra. At the heart of the project lies Berg’s eponymous antiheroine, Lulu; a signature role for Hannigan, who tracks her free and ever-elusive spirit from inside-out, blazing a trail through supposedly disparate genres of radical music-theatre, post-Romantic expressionist opera and Broadway musical.

The theme is craziness; ‘the craziness of being in love…of being driven crazy by an internal rhythm.’ But these are no barmy juxtapositions. As each piece unfolds in lyricalsilver, shot with gaiety, abandon, black shadow, they become part of a ‘hall of mirrors’ in which Lulu – and Hannigan herself – is reflected, just out of reach.

Berio’s neo-avant-garde Sequenza III (1965) is transposed up in pitch to render his vocal athletics especially girlish; just like the adolescent Lulu might deliver, with a steel-soft, mellifluous core that is anything but histrionic. The litheness of Hannigan’s voice beguiles, so that the near-segue into the Lulu Suite (1934) comes as a sense-sharpening emotional jolt.

There is surprisingly little singing in Berg’s symphonic extrapolation, created for listeners impatient to catch a glimpse of the forthcoming opera he never got to finish. But with Hannigan at the helm, coaxing wave upon languid wave of silken sound, we get more than a glimpse of Lulu. It’s a highly personal, sensual reading; lavish with orchestral detail and, when it comes, a spellbinding ‘Lied der Lulu’.

A further, piercing jolt awaits in the shift from Countess Geschwitz’s darkly enraptured ‘Liebestod’ to ‘They’re writing songs of love, but not for me’. Now we enter an obliquely other 1930s in the form of a rich suite of arrangements from Gershwin’sGirl Crazy, brilliantly orchestrated by Bill Elliott. This is no straight take on musical theatre but an inspired evocation of Lulu through oompah-cabaret, merry-go-round allusion.

‘Music is music’, as Berg once said to Gershwin, and as the bonus film reminds us. But it takes a performer of Hannigan’s calibre to show how gloriously illuminating supposedly lateral connections can be.

Steph Power


Listen to an excerpt from this recording here.