ABRAHAMSEN Let Me Tell You
Hans Abrahamsen and Paul Griffiths’s let me tell you, winner of both a Grawemeyer and an RPS award, is inspired by Hamlet’s Ophelia and it is a richly theatrical journey. Yet that is not because it attempts to depict Shakespeare’s heroine as she is traditionally understood. Instead Griffiths distilled his text for these seven interlinked songs from his novel of the same name, which (almost literally) rebuilt Ophelia as a narrator using only the words Shakespeare gave her, reordered and repeated as Griffiths saw fit.
As this filtration process is itself worked through Abrahamsen’s half-hour score, however, the idea has undergone another transformation. The spare yet pregnant lines of text meet Abrahamsen’s finely spun textures and each word feels felt and weighed in music. Possibly you don’t even need to know that Barbara Hannigan is singing Ophelia’s words any more, yet her vehemence and passion suggest she thinks justice is finally being done to a woman who never did get much chance to tell her side of the story.
Hannigan premiered the piece in 2013 (then it was performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Andris Nelsons; now the Latvian has recorded it with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra) and had reportedly coached the composer on the intricacies of vocal music for what was his first sung work. One imagines these sessions produced the use of stile concitato emphases on repeated syllables, a flick of Monteverdi added to a more usual Hannigan repertoire of jarring leaps and plunges across her formidable range.
Alongside this, the Danish composer’s sound world is a mass of glinting detail. There are prominent parts for glockenspiel (struck and bowed), celesta and vibraphone, and ear-tickling swerves between microtonal clusters and more recognisable Romantic echoes. To the line ‘A robin will tune his bells’, in the vast fifth song, there is a ravishing blur of downward lines, and if it does sound like (rather psychedelic) ringing, by the time the verse reaches its end – ‘glass in which there are showers of light’ – the music cracks into a myriad of colours, as if refracted from a broken shard.
The Bard’s Ophelia drowned in the brook; this one wanders into the snow, her tread hypnotically evoked by paper softly rubbed around the skin of a bass drum. It’s a tiny, tragic Winterreise, but its final sung echoes are defiant: ‘I will go on’. The rest is silence.