Hans Abrahamsen / Barbara Hannigan - let me tell you
***** 'the piece, a winner of a Grawemeyer and an RPS
award, contains a whole ocean of melancholy and ferocity. This is
realised by the extraordinary soprano Barbara Hannigan and by Abrahamsen
s wondrous score, which embraces Romantic echoes and fascinating
microtonal clusters ... What emerges is a postmodern portrait of a woman
with much more of an inner life than even the Bard may have realised.
At the close, she wanders into the snow rather than drown herself, the
glistening music matching this wintry self-extinction step for step.'
--Neil Fisher The Times, 5th February 2016
***** 'one of the most
spellbindingly beautiful vocal-orchestral works of recent years. It was
created for soprano Barbara Hannigan and is a stunning vehicle for her,
with its floating, effortless-sounding high notes and pure, expressive
tone. Her Ophelia is intense and fragile, sensuous and febrile; her
phrasing is elastic and tasteful. Abrahamsen s orchestral writing is
typically spare and wintry a magical panoply of spangly microtonal
sounds come from Andris Nelsons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony
Orchestra, but it s also darker, more lush and more bristling than his
most austere works. The piece won this year s $100,000 Grawemeyer award
and it s easy to hear why.'
Kate Molleson The Guardian, 14th January
"...This eerily alluring 30-minute work for soprano and orchestra was
written for the remarkable Barbara Hannigan, who performed it
The New York Times, January 19th, 2016
in 2012-13, »let me tell« you is a half-hour dramatic monologue, voiced
by a character who requires us to hear her. That character is not quite
the Ophelia of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. She has the same words, her entire
text being made up from words Ophelia speaks in the play, but she uses
these words in different ways, and certainly to express herself
She tells us of things to which there is little or
no reference in the play, such as the nature of memory, or ‘a time…when
we had no music’, or an explosive experience of love. And where
Shakespeare’s Ophelia descends into madness and watery death, the
protagonist of let me tell you comes to a different conclusion.
The words with which she has to recount her story –
Ophelia’s words – are barely adequate to her, but she has to make them
serve, and she does. Her utterance is at once constrained and resolute,
fragile and decisive, and its nature is realized at the opening by an
adaptation of a technique used by Monteverdi, of rebounding on one note.
What was an ornament four hundred years ago becomes for her the means
by which she can be at once hesitant and assertive.
Her entry into the piece comes early, but only after
she has been summoned into a magical soundscape of piccolos, violin
harmonics and celesta. The music – and this is true of the whole work –
is at once familiar and strange, for the language of traditional
tonality is present but fractured into new configurations. A high degree
of consonance is coupled with harmonic states and progressions we have
not heard before; the sense of a recognizable key comes only fleetingly;
and melody here casts back to an ancient time of folk song – rather as
Ophelia does in her derangement, or as Gertrude does in speaking of
Ophelia’s drowning, when, drifting down the stream, she ‘chanted
snatches of old tunes’.
There is familiarity and strangeness, too, in the
rhythm. Generally the pulse is clear – it is picked out at the start in
oscillating octaves from the celesta, passing later to other instruments
– but the position of the strong beat is ambiguous. Time here
simultaneously ticks and floats.
Such music, beginning right away, not only prepares
the protagonist’s world but also foreshadows a crucial melodic element,
to be associated with her words ‘Let me tell you’. These words come
three times in the piece, defining its three parts, the first
recollective, the second set in the present, the third carrying a
promise of what will happen in the future.
Having stated the inadequacy of words, the
protagonist goes on, in two further songs, to wonder about the
reliability of memory before she comes to a specific recollection – ‘in
limping time’, as the score has it – of that time without music. This
makes her ponder on how music shifts and changes time, and we recognize
that this music is doing so.
It achieves that at the opening of the second part
by replaying and altering the opening of the first, to make a short
introduction to the climactic fifth song, which plunges into the
delirium of love.
The last part has an even shorter introduction,
again going back to the beginning and taking it further, before arriving
at the slow finale, marked adagissimo. Now microtonal tunings fold into
the texture and, being derived from natural harmonics, begin to reroot
the music in a glistening new world of resonance. We are in the snow, in
a white landscape where the erasure of detail and contour is the
renewal of possibility.
Ophelia is one of those imaginary figures whose
existence goes on beyond the work that gave them birth. She has appeared
in paintings and in novels, including the one, also called let me tell
you, that was the source for this piece. Now she speaks again through a
performer on stage, in a mode that is intimate and demands attention.
Her words come back to her transformed, and she has gained, as she
herself might say, ‘the powers of music’.
– Paul Griffiths
by soprano Barbara Hannigan [with the Berlin Philharmonic] and
conductor Andris Nelsons in 2013. 'Let me tell you', winner of the 2016
Gawemeyer Award, is a setting of a libretto by Paul Griffiths. The work
is based on Griffiths 2008 novel of the same name, using the limited
vocabulary which Shakespeare afforded Ophelia to create a more complex
idea of the character. Comprising seven poems, the work is divided into
three parts devoted to Ophelia s past, present and future. Danish
composer Hans Abrahamsen was smitten by the idea of scoring Paul
Griffiths novella 'let me tell you'; Barbara Hannigan, asked to sing at a
surprise party for the writer and critic, dared to suggest a commission
to the Berlin Philharmonic.
Before she knew it, they had accepted.
While many world premieres fall into oblivion, she has ensured
subsequent performances with the Gothenburg Symphony, Rotterdam
Philharmonic and the City of Birmingham Symphony this season; other
orchestras have plans to programme the work further down the line. The
soprano, who has sung some 80 premieres, feels such a strong sense of
responsibility that she compares the piece to a baby: "Don t drop it,"
she wants to say, "keep it clothed and nourished."
This is the second
time that a musical setting of a text by Paul Griffiths has won the
Grawemeyer (Tan Dun's Marco Polo won in 1998). The piece also won the
2014 Royal Philharmonic Society award for large-scale composition, which
described it as "a work of exquisite beauty whose ravishing surface
belies a meticulously imagined and innovative score". Abrahamsen s other
accolades include the Carl Nielsen Prize (1989) and the Wilhelm Hansen
Composer Prize (1998). Hannigan has revealed just how involved she was
at the early stages of the composition process: this being the composer s
first sung work, she [Hannigan] gave him a four-hour session in vocal
music from Renaissance to 12-tone. 'I think that s why the writing doesn
t feel like modern music to me,' she says. 'I feel like it has always
been there. Even though the intervals and rhythms might be difficult,
the lyricism has a timeless quality.'