Gramophone Contemporary Award 2022

Abrahamsen The Snow Queen

Soloists; Chorus and Orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera / Cornelius Meister (directed by Andreas Kriegenburg)

BSO Recordings

Hans Abrahamsen was at work on let me tell you (3/16) when the Royal Danish Opera asked him for a full-length stage work, which he already knew would be based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. Anyone expecting the resulting opera to echo the expressionist tendencies of its predecessor was sorely disappointed when it was first seen in Copenhagen in October 2019.

The Snow Queen is altogether colder, sparser, more calculating – a purposeful reflection of the mathematically perfect realm into which the character of Kay finds himself drawn. Like a snowflake, outer purity conceals inner complexity. Much of the score is derived entirely from Abrahamsen’s chamber work and creative tabula rasa Schnee (‘Snow’), a series of 10 cool canons in matching pairs finished in 2008. Like a windswept Danish Parsifal, the opera operates at its own (predominantly very slow) speeds, occupying its own linguistic and metaphysical space.

‘Musicologists will enjoy chewing over just how The Snow Queen sounds so simple with a score that is anything but’

Operatic economics are to thank for the oddity of a debut recording in a translated English version (Amanda Holden’s), taken from performances of the new production seen at the Bavarian State Opera just two months after the premiere in Denmark. Barbara Hannigan doesn’t sing in languages she can’t speak, which counted her out of the original Copenhagen production by Francisco Negrin. Sofie Elkjær Jensen created the central role of Gerda admirably in that staging, but even then you could sense the role’s occasional tailoring to Hannigan’s altitudinous and elasticated instrument and her ability to turn on a sixpence from brittle to lyrical.

Altogether, the Munich production by Andreas Kriegenburg is more affecting, lucid and beautiful, even if the opera sometimes feels uneasy in its new linguistic skin, once removed from Abrahamsen’s own imagination (he co-wrote the Danish libretto with Henrik Engelbrecht). Hannigan does great things with it though she can’t resist the temptation to make it into the ‘show’ it doesn’t really want to be, eyeballing the audience and deploying her characteristic arm and hand gestures.

In Munich, The Snow Queen is even less of a fairy story than in Copenhagen, while Cornelius Meister has it sounding a touch more stringent than at its premiere under Robert Houssart. The asylum setting suggests that the shard of broken mirror that infects Kay’s view of the world is actually the fog of mental illness. Throughout, Hannigan tries to get through to a body double of Kay emotionally castrated by illness or perhaps the treatment thereof. Unlike in Copenhagen, there is snow. Lots of it.

If Hannigan can appear that bit too adult – too thinking – Peter Rose conjures up a workable sense of abstraction in the Wotan-like triple role of the Snow Queen, Reindeer and Clock, and despite offering plenteous detail. Katarina Dalayman makes a strong impression as his counterpart, the Grandmother, Old Lady and Finn Woman. The two crows are nicely acted but suffer a little in translation from Abrahamsen’s own fantastical half-Danish ‘crow language’. Rachael Wilson is an extremely moving Kay, far more childlike than Hannigan and apparently on more of a journey. Caroline Wettergreen handles the Princess’s fleeting coloratura admirably. That said, I remain unsure of the theatrical and characterful effectiveness of much of Abrahamsen’s vocal writing.]

The opera thaws in its last 20 minutes as Gerda finally finds her friend and frees him from his affliction (Kriegenburg’s abundance of body doubles gets confusing here). The music blossoms and warms even as it remains underpinned by the regimental tick-tocking of Rose’s Clock – Abrahamsen sticking to his own rules while reaching out as he works against them (or at least giving that illusion). As the composer told me in 2019: ‘You can make the perfect structures … but in the end it’s about finding your inner child.’ Kriegenburg’s production, cleanly shot by Christoph Engel, suggests it was all in the mind anyway. His is not a show for kids, even if Abrahamsen’s opera might be – getting close to Andersen’s genius in recounting big ideas with little tales. Musicologists will enjoy chewing over just how The Snow Queen sounds so simple with a score that is anything but. Andrew Mellor

Gramophone Awards 2022 – The Winners

Select an Award-winner below to read full reviews of each of the winning albums and expert insights from our writers. 

Recording Categories

Opera & Recording of the Year

Korngold: Die tote Stadt (Sols; Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Kirill Petrenko)


Ysaÿe: Six Solo Violin Sonatas (James Ehnes)

Early Music

Josquin: ‘Baisiez Moy’ (Thélème / Jean-Christophe Groffe)


Mahler: Symphony No 7 (Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Kirill Petrenko)


Bartók. Beethoven. Berg: Violin Concertos (Frank-Peter Zimmermann; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Alan Gilbert, Daniel Harding, Kirill Petrenko)


Beethoven: Diabelli Variations (Mitsuko Uchida)

Concept Album

Enargeia (Emily D'Angelo; Das Freie Orchester Berlin / Jarkko Riihimäki)


Abrahamsen: The Snow Queen (Sols; Chorus and Orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera / Cornelius Meister)


’Round Midnight (Quatuor Ebène; Antoine Tamestit; Nicolas Altstaedt)


JS Bach: St Matthew Passion (Sols; Pygmalion / Raphaël Pichon)


Rachmaninov: Songs – ‘Dissonance’ (Asmik Grigorian; Lukas Geniušas)

Voice & Ensemble

‘BariTenor’ (Michael Spyres; Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra / Marko Letonja)

Spatial Audio

Ravel: Orchestral Works (Sinfonia of London / John Wilson)

Special Awards

Label of the Year


Artist of the Year

Barbara Hannigan

Young Artist of the Year

Johan Dalene

Special Achievement

Mozart Momentum (Leif Ove Andsnes; Mahler Chamber Orchestra)

Lifetime Achievement

Daniel Barenboim

Orchestra of the Year

Budapest Festival Orchestra

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