It’s a 300 kilometre drive from Bamberg to Prague, but that’s a short distance for Jakub Hrůša, who doesn’t really believe in national borders anyway. And musically speaking, if Hrůša and the Bamberg Symphony’s performance of BrahmsSymphony no. 2 last night is anything to go by, it’s no distance at all.

Jakub Hrůša and the Bamberg Symphony © Andreas Herzau
Jakub Hrůša and the Bamberg Symphony
© Andreas Herzau

When Brahms described his second as “so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it”, he was surely winding his publisher up. The first movement is full of sunshine, the lilt of a three-time dance carrying you through a landscape of warm colours which could be in any forest imagined by the Romantic poets, from Germany to Bohemia. The way it was played last night, the music could have been written by Dvořák – with the exception of interludes of German bombast – and it’s no co-incidence that Hrůša and the Bambergers play it that way: they are mid-way through a series of CD releases where they compare and contrast each Brahms symphony with its opposite number from Dvořák’s last four.

That first movement sounded dreamily gorgeous. These are players who are so tightly knit to a shared vision of the piece that the shape of any phrase is identical for every musician who plays it, giving emphasis, drive and contour without any sense of being forced. The Symphony Hall here in Bamberg has crystal clear acoustics, giving the performers nowhere to hide: you hear every detail, every nuance of the onset and release of a note. If anyone is slightly off their peers, you can hear it – which presented no problem, since this happened no more than a handful of times in the whole evening.

Barbara Hannigan © Andreas Herzau
Barbara Hannigan
© Andreas Herzau

I can find Brahms’ music over-elaborated – just one too many variations or developments. Not so here: this was music that I simply hoped wouldn’t end. If the remaining three movements were less surprising than the first, they displayed equal quality: lovely timbre, super-sweet woodwind sounds, jaunty pizzicato strings, rich, opulent brass, perfectly held pianissimi, a glorious combination of horns and strings to end.

Hans Abrahamsen’s 2013 Let me tell you comes from a far colder climate, evoking a winter landscape which is as harsh as it is sparkling. Since we know that the narrator of the text is Hamlet’s Ophelia, the severe beauty of the landscape is complemented by the harsh knowledge that when Ophelia goes out into the snow, she is not intending to return.

Let me tell you is an unashamed star vehicle for the unique talents of Barbara Hannigan, who did not disappoint. Hannigan can do things with her voice that other sopranos cannot: she can pulsate a tremolo with perfect control; she can develop a dozen colours in a single note; she can employ heavy vibrato without hint of losing perfect intonation. Abrahamsen creates many combinations of instruments to create different timbres, often using those instruments’ highest register: piccolo, harp, xylophone, glockenspiel are prominent. Throughout the work, he uses Hannigan’s voice as an orchestral instrument to create yet more combinations, every one of them of austere beauty: it requires demonically precise control on the part of instrumentalists and of the singer, and that’s exactly what it got last night – all the more extraordinary when remembering, once again, that this is a hall where the audience hears every detail.

Barbara Hannigan © Andreas Herzau
Barbara Hannigan
© Andreas Herzau

And yet, for all this admirable virtuosity, Let me tell you left me feeling short-changed. This is, after all, a setting of words, a piece that purports, at some level, to tell a story or at least to describe a person and her emotional journey. But I didn’t get any of that: the words were not decipherable and it was as if the beauty of Hannigan’s voice and the music was reaching the listener by bypassing the text rather than by using it.

But I will deny neither the beauty of the sounds produced nor my admiration for the skill with which it was done. And I will remember this evening for the exceptional performance of Brahms and the beaming smiles of an orchestra who are obviously deliriously happy to be playing with each other and with this conductor.

****1