Hans ABRAHAMSEN (b. 1952)

let me tell you for soprano and orchestra (2012-13) [32:39]
Text by Paul Griffiths
Barbara Hannigan (soprano)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Andris Nelsons
rec. Herkulessaal, Munich, Germany, 1-3 July 2015
English texts with German translation
WINTER & WINTER 910 232-2 [32:45]

I was not familiar with the music of Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen until I heard this extraordinary work. There was a notice in the New York Times that Barbara Hannigan would be performing let me tell you with the Cleveland Orchestra under their music director Franz Welser-Mst at Carnegie Hall on 17 January 2016. Being a real fan of Hannigan, I did a bit of research to learn more about the piece. Abrahamsen collaborated with her and the British writer and music critic Paul Griffiths in the composition of this song-cycle, the composer’s first work for voice. Hannigan premiered it with Andris Nelsons and the Berlin Philharmonic in 2013. I watched the premiere on the orchestra’s Digital Hall website and was instantly captivated. A trip to attend the New York premiere in January will undoubtedly remain among the most cherished memories of my concert-going experience. Before attending that concert I read Griffiths’ short novel, let me tell you, on which the song-cycle is based. It is significant that Abrahamsen received the 2016 Grawemeyer Award, one of the most prestigious of its kind, for this work.

A few words about the book that inspired the composition may be in order. Griffiths fashioned a poetic novel in 2008 utilizing only Ophelia’s 481 spoken words from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Ophelia is the narrator and tells her own story. The words do not follow the order in the play, but Ophelia beautifully describes her relationship with her father, brother Laertes and Hamlet. The extracts Abrahamsen chose are not explicitly concerned with Ophelia as protagonist but with her memory, time, light and nature. The result is a poetic song-cycle in three parts containing seven verses, three in the first part and two each in the second and third parts. The first part concerns Ophelia’s past and begins with “Let me tell you how it was”; the second part, the present, begins with “Let me tell you how it is”; and the last part, the future, in which the first stanza ends with “Let me tell you how it will be.” Snow plays a major role here as it did in the composer's earlier works, such as the chamber piece Schnee, the orchestral Winter Night and Snow Pictures for piano quartet. Abrahamsen admits he has been rather preoccupied with snow and winter with his forthcoming first opera being The Snow Queen. In the third part of let me tell you, the image of snow predominates and the work concludes, thus: “The snow flowers are all like each other and I cannot keep my eyes on one. I will give up this and go on. I will go on.” The rather ambiguous ending could mean that Ophelia is going on to die in the snow, just as Shakespeare’s character drowns in the play, but as in Griffiths’ novel, she does not let the reader explicitly know that her fate will be her death.

Abrahamsen has scored let me tell you for a large orchestra with much percussion, but the whole orchestra rarely plays together and accompanies the soprano soloist with various groups of instruments. Much of the orchestral writing is highly pitched with the “magical sound of piccolos, violin harmonics, and celesta”, as Paul Griffiths indicates in his notes to the CD. The voice at times sounds as one with the instruments, and the composer employs the trillo technique used by Monteverdi where the voice repeats the pitch on a single syllable, creating a wave or pulse effect that lends the work an otherworldly character.

Abrahamsen’s tonal palette is very broad and the colorful orchestration is unlike any I’ve heard — at times, though, it recalls Thomas Ads’s use of high-pitched instruments with icy strings balanced against some of the lowest instruments of the orchestra. Griffith describes it well: “The music … is at once familiar and strange, for the language of traditional tonality is present but fractured into new configurations.” While much of the music is at the quiet end of the spectrum, it can explode with considerable power. For example, in the fifth song, where “the robin will tune his bells”, the brass and percussion are given their head. With “You have sun-blasted me, and turned me to light” the orchestra reaches a climax, after which the song descends with bell-like sounds evoking “glass in which there are showers of light”, or like glass breaking into shards. The vocal writing is equally daunting requiring the soprano to make powerful leaps into the stratosphere. The quiet ending of the last song is spellbinding. As the soloist is singing, “I will go on”, there are long descending figures like snow falling, and the work ends barely audibly with the quiet rubbing of paper against the skin of a bass drum.

It is not in the least surprising that Barbara Hannigan had a role in the composition, and the work is dedicated to her. This technically demanding work is tailor-made for Hannigan. I cannot imagine anyone else doing it justice. She can reach those heights like a laser beam and then descend with incredibly soft tones. She ascends to a radiant high C as “snow falls” and her voice then drops more than octave to the B below. With precise intonation and vocal control, this is a mesmerizing performance. She has perfect accompanists in the Bavarian Radio Symphony and conductor Andris Nelsons. All of this is captured in sound that is both spacious and immediate.

While I have nothing but praise for this endeavor on CD, I would also recommend watching Hannigan’s performance with the Berlin Philharmonic and Nelsons on the orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall. With the complexities of the orchestration it is a real treat to see how some of the composer’s unique sounds are accomplished. Watching Hannigan in any performance is no hardship, either. Normally, I would complain about any disc with only a half-hour’s worth of music. In this case I cannot imagine listening to anything else after let me tell you any more than I could listen to another work after hearing Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s performance of her husband’s Neruda Songs on their equally short CD (reviews). As with that, this is case where less can add up to more. Do try to hear let me tell you.

Leslie Wright
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