In the Concertgebouw’s Saturday Matinée for NTR Radio 4, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in the Dutch première of Hans Abrahamsen’s Let me tell you. It takes as its inspiration Paul Griffiths' novel of the same title, telling the story of Ophelia in the first person, which uses only the 481-word vocabulary given to her by Shakespeare in Hamlet. Abrahamsen’s haunting song cycle uses text selected from the novel and was composed especially for the unique voice of Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, who is currently artist in residence for NTR’s Saturday Matinée series. Composer, writer and singer collaborated on the selection of the texts for the cycle, resulting in an emotionally penetrating work of great imaginative subtlety.

Barbara Hannigan © Elmer de Haas
Barbara Hannigan
© Elmer de Haas

The first song of Part I, “Let me tell you how it was”, opened with an unearthly, high, keening call, with crystalline harmonics played by the violins, and silvery piccolos, with celesta in alternating octaves. The voice entered sotto voce in repeated notes on one syllable, with a fragile, speech-like quality. As Ophelia declared her right to tell her story, the ringing, bell-like texture swelled intensely with harp, marimba and xylophone, all playing in alternating octaves, while oboe and cor anglais enriched the shining aureole of long legato phrases from flutes and strings.

The work as a whole created an intensely vulnerable atmosphere, with beautiful, subtle use of timbre and texture suggesting variously brilliant light, snowfall, an otherworldly presence and powerful undercurrents of longing, grief and joy. The shimmering timbres were perfectly matched by the extraordinary purity and flexibility of Hannigan’s sound. There were many moments of outstanding beauty, especially the central climax of the piece, the end of part II (“Now I do not mind if it is day or night”). While Hannigan sang with an urgent high trilling vibrato, the wind and brass sections built through bright-edged ascending scales to a climax, like a cacophonous fanfare on the phrase: “You have sunblasted me, and turned me to light”.

The last phrases of the fifth song were set like a peal of bells, in overlapping waves, in which the voice rang and dipped, becoming like a bell itself. It wove through the trumpet and trombone lines, falling in long descending phrases. The full orchestration created an overwhelmingly bright, glittering evocation of the showers of sublime, unbearable light in the passage:

“You have made me like glass –
like glass in an ecstasy from your light,
like glass in which light rained
and rained and rained and goes on,
like glass in which there are showers of light,
light that cannot end.”

The last song (“I will go out now”) also used long descending scales, this time taken by the flutes and oboes, contributing to an atmosphere of spaciousness and tenderness, in which “snow flowers” fall softly. Hannigan sang her mostly syllabic text, set on long notes at widely-spaced intervals, with lonely simplicity, returning at the end to the plaintive repeated notes on single syllables that opened the cycle. Hannigan showed formidable artistry in this work, with an honest and sensitive performance in which virtuosity of vocal technique was never demonstrated self-consciously for its own sake, but always in the service of poetic subtlety.

In a thoughtful piece of programming, the other work in this concert was Richard Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie. Both conceptually and musically, this was a strong choice with which to follow let me tell you. Time, night and day, music, light and snowfall are all concepts which occur in the text of Abrahamsen’s work. Eine Alpensinfonie is a symphonic poem which follows the course of a day in the mountains from night to the following nightfall, encompassing natural features such as storm, sunrise and sunset, a waterfall and flowering meadows, along with emotional or conceptual features such as vision and elegy. Both composers use tone painting to evoke visual images and surroundings. At a more subtle level, Strauss associated his Alpensinfonie with transcending Christianity and finding moral purity through one’s own powers and through nature. It followed on from the personal theme of self-vindication and expression explored in let me tell you.

“Nacht”, the first section of Eine Alpensinfonie, opens as Let me tell you closed - with descending scales, building in layers until all notes of the B-flat minor scale are played at once, as the mountain falls into deep night. The brass section was outstanding throughout this work, rich and sonorous. The moment where a band of horns, trumpets and trombones are heard offstage in “Der Anstieg” (“The Ascent”) was most effective. The woodwinds also shone, with a beautiful, fluid tone. Under Nézet-Séguin’s authoritative direction, the orchestra made much of the rich colour palette, playing with deep confidence and panache. Emotionally profound and conceptually concise, this programme made for an intelligent and richly satisfying concert.