There are singers, and there are artists, and sometimes they are the same person, and one is not better than the other; but as a description, this is a useful point of departure. Barbara Hannigan is an artist who sings. You can see it from the moment she comes out on stage, evocatively dressed in an asymmetrical gown that exudes a kind of careless glamour. Beauty, be it physical or vocal, is incidental to what's going on here — a mere byproduct of an act of communication. "Da waren zwei Kinder," she sings, the opening line of a song by Alexander Zemlinsky, but the words are almost spoken — not in Sprechstimme, that heightened hybrid of sung speech that German composers explored in the early 20th century, but in an actual sung voice conveying words that demand this particular kind of inflection, the simple start of a tale that quickly, in two verses, grows Gothic and grim, while the singer's voice blossoms, unobtrusively, into full-on opera.
Hannigan is, for those in the know, a marvel. In Washington, not many, evidently, are in the know, since the Terrace Theater, where she appeared on Tuesday night as part of Renée Fleming's ongoing "Voices" series, was not quite full for her remarkable recital. No matter: those who were there were, surely, converts. In lieu of what's become the standard-issue classical vocal recital, a carefully balanced selection of sets taking a singer through a range of styles and languages, Hannigan offered a small, contained slice of repertoire from early-20th-century Austria, intense and focused and bittersweet as a slice of Sachertorte and a cup of strong coffee in a Viennese cafe, and imbued with the same evocative, lingering aftertaste.
It was a short program built perfectly to scale. The first half featured sets by Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, showing all of those composers at early phases when their music was still weaving its way through the languorous dissipating tendrils of late Romanticism, clearing its way through thickets of overripe tonality with little sharp edges of expressionistic outbursts, working toward something sparer.
The second half offered songs by Alexander Zemlinsky, who in the juxtaposition sounded downright robust, as well as slightly deranged in the intense angry passion of "Entbietung" (Invitation), followed by his sometime student Alma Mahler. Mahler showed something in common with Hannigan in her willingness to sacrifice poetic effect or mere beauty to the cause of drama — in, for example, "Ich wandle unter Blumen" (I wander among the flowers), in which the singer is so distracted and dazed with love that she sings in a near-monotone, offering each phrase on a single, repeated note.
The final set comprised four Mignon songs from Hugo Wolf's "Goethe Lieder," which created, as Wolf tends to do, four small, self-contained, character-full minidramas, each limned as carefully and completely as a carved medieval rosary bead: a world unto itself.
The pianist — it is unjust to call him an "accompanist" — was Reinbert de Leeuw, the acclaimed conductor, pianist, and composer from Holland, a tall, white-haired figure with a crinkled face, who folded himself at the piano and with large hands brought forth intimately scaled music, with a jeweler's precision. The two figures seemed almost unrelated on stage, and yet operated in perfect, confident sympathy. It was a marvelous and memorable evening.