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Hans Abrahamsen / Barbara Hannigan - let me tell you

Review

***** '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 2016

"...This eerily alluring 30-minute work for soprano and orchestra was written for the remarkable Barbara Hannigan, who performed it stunningly..."
The New York Times, January 19th, 2016

 


 

Composed 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 differently.

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

 

Premiered 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.'


Hans Abrahamsen / Barbara Hannigan - let me tell you 


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