A Crazy Girl Crazy

Winner of the 2018 Grammy for "Best Classical Solo Album," "Recording of the Month" in BBC Music Magazine, nominated for a 2018 Juno Award (Canada's version of the Grammy, coming March 24), listed in "Best Classical Music Recordings 2017" of the New York Times, and recipient of multiple European honors, Crazy Girl Crazy must be heard. Created by the phenomenally versatile Canadian soprano/conductor Barbara Hannigan, the Alpha label album/bonus DVD package showcases Hannigan and the Ludwig Orchestra performing three landmark 20th century masterworks—Berio's conception-shattering, impossibly acrobatic Sequenza III (1965); Berg's Lulu Suite (1926); and three Gershwin gems from Girl Crazy (1930)—arranged into a new Girl Crazy Suite (2016) by Bill Elliott and Hannigan.

That the pieces by the two Bs can literally take your breath away has been long known. Hannigan raises the pitch of Sequenza III, which Berio wrote for his wife, Cathy Berberian, in order to create "a high, pure, girlish world." This she does through a combination of nonsense "warm-up" sounds and, scattered throughout the piece, barely comprehensible lyrics by Markus Kutter:

Give me a few words for a woman
to sing a truth allowing us
to build a house without worrying before night comes.

Berio imagined the suite as "a dramatic essay whose story, so to speak, is the relationship between the soloist and her own voice." If its music initially proves too astounding to allow most listeners to part the veils of disbelief and fully experience Hannigan dialoguing with herself, it nonetheless inspires awe and reverence for an artist who not only executes its voice-threatening effects and leaps with uncommon ease, but also manages to sound sweet and beautiful throughout while conducting the orchestra.

I'll leave analysis of Hannigan's raison d'être for the program, which might be thought of as the "Three Faces of Lulu," to those who buy the recording. (I auditioned it in 24/96 hi-rez, and note that it is available in resolutions up to 24/192 from four sites.) But I will say that the way in which Hannigan's performance of the Lulu Suite equally emphasizes its lyric beauty and violence confirms Berg as one of the true geniuses of 12-tone music. Atonal music is the perfect vehicle for expressing the turmoil in Lulu's life, and for underscoring her multiple dramatic clashes and defiance. While some may be taken aback by how healthy and innocent Hannigan manages to sound so as she communicates Lulu's depths of decadence and death-courting obsession, that very paradox makes her 15 year-old Lulu all the more credible.

After those two tour de forces, why has Hannigan made the seemingly implausible leap to Gershwin's "But Not for Me," "Embraceable You," and "I Got Rhythm"? Well, for starters, Gershwin and Berg admired each other, and even met in Vienna in 1928, when Gershwin heard the Kolisch quartet play the Lyric Suite. Berg was also in the midst of composing his final opera, Lulu, while Gershwin was finishing up Girl Crazy.

Beyond those historical tidbits lies the Lulu connection that serves as Hannigan's rationale for the recording. (You have to read Hannigan's liner notes.) The Girl Crazy Suite came about after Hannigan met Tony Award-winning composer and arranger Elliott, and commissioned him to arrange material from Girl Crazy as a companion piece for the Lulu Suite. Even armed with that knowledge, you may not be prepared for the new suite's 12-tone elements, the brief interjection of music from the Gershwin's Strike up the Band, and the music's downright hilarious, teasing elements. With Hannigan sailing through it all with ease, it's fabulous.

For engineering, Crazy Girl Crazy will not win awards. Good though the recording may be, there's an occasional digital edge on Hannigan's voice, and the 47-piece orchestra plus soloist implausibly occupy a rather narrow soundstage. When all is said and done, the uncredited chorus that appears briefly on the Gershwin fares best in the air department. But there is so much about the recording's music and musicianship that will leave you in awe that it's easy to get past its mild sonic limitations.

Phenomenal in the extreme, and a perfect follow-up to March 8's 2018 celebration of International Women's Day, Crazy Girl Crazy deserves all the attention that continues to come its way. No one with even an iota of curiosity should miss the opportunity to give a listen. This is one recording that will lure you back, and back again for more.

saxman73's picture

I happen to have heard the "Lulu Suite" and the Gershwin arrangements with Barbara Hannigan in Paris, with the Radio France orchestra, last October. It was great! They also played Arnold Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night". Pretty amazing to watch when she conducts and sings at the same time, for sure.

Jerome Sabbagh

doak's picture

Thanks for the "heads up."
Much appreciated.
Doak Wattigney

doak's picture

Found both CD quality and 24/96 hires downloads available at Primephonic.
Snagged the latter and it's playing now. Well worth the investment IMO.

doak's picture


dougotte's picture

...to stick to vinyl and SA-CD, then you post another review of a fascinating digital/CD only release!

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Life is a bitch, isn't it? Of course, if you're willing to accept hi-rez PCM, and you're equipped for file playback, you do have a hi-res option. After all, many of your SACDs may have begun as 24/96 PCM. Which is not to say that, on my system at least, those hi-rez PCM files do not sound different than the DSD layer of an SACD; they most certainly do.

And to think that I didn't even discuss the bonus DVD... I just couldn't find enough horns in my head to do so.

dougotte's picture

Jason, I was kind of joking in my previous note, but thanks as always for your patient and helpful response.

I do now have a digital player, and have a few titles (based upon your reviews!) that I occasionally listen to. I still much prefer physical copies, but understand that they're not always offered for new releases.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

'Nuf said.

spacehound's picture

Obviously they are not always offered, simply because not enough people are going to pretend to enjoy it to justify setting up the pressing plant, physically distributing the finished article, and so on.

This recording is a prime example. It's just the electronic equivalent of vanity publishing.

dougotte's picture

I agree with what you wrote, except that word. Am I pretending to myself to prefer discs, or to someone else?

My main point was that, despite all the fine discs I already have, and many more that are stlll available, I am tempted to download content because I trust Jason's reviews. But, I'd much rather have the same content available on SA-CD.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture