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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers

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Hans ABRAHAMSEN (b. 1952)
let me tell you, for soprano and orchestra (2012-2013) [32:39]
Text by Paul Griffiths
Barbara Hannigan (soprano)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Andris Nelsons
rec. 1-3 July 2015, Herkulessaal, Munich, Germany
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet includes sung texts (English & German)
WINTER & WINTER 910 232-2 [32:45]

Not only did this release get a glowing review from Leslie Wright it was also MusicWeb’s Recording of the Year for 2016. Intrigued by my colleague’s detailed and thoughtful response to the piece – not to mention the rave notices elsewhere – I simply had to hear what all the fuss was about. And as I’ve not encountered any Abrahamsen before this really is an ‘innocent ear’ review. There’s only 33 minutes of music here, but eClassical’s per-second charging model means the lossless download costs a very reasonable $8.82 (6.94). Alas, CD buyers will have to pay full whack, typically 10-13 online.

let me tell you is based on British author and music critic Paul Griffiths’s experimental novella of the same name, which in turn draws on the doomed Ophelia’s lines from Hamlet. Abrahamsen’s chosen stanzas – seven in all – aren’t presented chronologically; nor are they to be taken as mere exposition, for it’s the abstractions that really matter here. On a more prosaic level this three-part song cycle deals with the past, the present and the future. The Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, well-versed in contemporary repertoire, gave the first performance of let me tell you in Berlin in 2013, and has since premiered it elsewhere. She, Griffiths and Abrahamsen worked closely on the piece, so this debut recording is likely to become a benchmark.

Those who equate contemporary works – especially experimental ones – with gritted teeth and offended ears will be pleasantly surprised by this score. The writing is spare, to which Hannigan appends her warm, superbly focused tones. The effect is intimate and engaging, often otherworldly but not too ‘other’. That said, I was astonished to pick out skeins of Strauss and Mahler in the mix. In particular the final stanza in Part 1 and the first in Part 2 surely draw from the same harmonic and stylistic well as Mahler’s valedictory Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde. Indeed, let me tell you strikes me as a precise and evocative distillation of all that’s gone before.

The two stanzas that make up Part 3 are probably the most haunting. Those long, sustained orchestral lines and Hannigan’s mirrored responses to them are simply exquisite. Not only that, they’re extremely moving. And while Ophelia may be looking to the future there’s something of the gloaming here, of Strauss in farewell mode. The BRSO play with hushed intensity under the sure, steady guidance of Andris Nelsons. However, it’s Hannigan’s frankly astounding blend of precision and feeling, especially in the closing stanzas, that deserves the most praise. The clear, detailed recording is very good, even though the soloist seems a little close at times.

I don’t love the piece – at least, not yet – but I do admire it; give it a go.

Dan Morgan


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