In any account of classical music in the 20th century a space has to be found for Schoenberg’s String Quartet No.2. Composed in 1907, this was the work that broke free from the tonality of the previous 200 years, causing such a rumpus at its premiere that one critic interrupted the performance shouting out, “Stop it! Enough!”
The Southbank Centre’s year-long festival of 20th-century music, The Rest is Noise, was still in its opening week when the Schoenberg quartet duly put in an appearance. It came as the climax of a recital of Viennese songs from the early 1900s by Barbara Hannigan, the Canadian soprano who has made a speciality of challenging modern works.
All the music in her programme breathed the same decadent air. In the first decade of the 20th century the most adventurous composers had reached the furthest outposts of Romanticism, a twilight world where the foundations of harmony were crumbling. Schoenberg’s early Op.2 songs, still nominally Romantic, are already pushing at the boundaries and Hannigan’s subtle and intense singing was perfectly attuned to their hyper-sensitive state.
Graceful, sparkling, playful, she would be the ideal choice for Schoenberg’s Pierrot and Berg’s Lulu, the two glittering embodiments of Viennese modernism. Although her voice might seem simply a fine, light soprano, Hannigan has an ability to create colours of exceptional poetic beauty. Accompanied with sensitivity by Reinbert de Leeuw, she drew the most from a group of four songs by Alma Mahler, though not the four that were listed in the programme (it was fortunate Hannigan’s German is so clear that printed texts were not needed). In Berg’s Seven Early Songs, so often sung by Wagnerian sopranos, she and de Leeuw were wonderfully delicate and focused on every detail.
Schoenberg’s String Quartet No.2 came naturally as the climax of this programme. The Quatuor Diotima played it with a Gallic sensitivity that made the music seem on the point of dissolving into the impressionist half-tints of Debussy, when Hannigan entered for the vocal settings that make up the last two movements, adding fire and her own intense brand of exquisite sensibility to the mix. It was an enthralling performance and a shame when it ended. What to say? “Don’t stop! Not enough!”