Few contemporary song-cycles have created as big a stir as Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you premiered in 2013. This has as much to do with the intensity of emotional expression in the half-hour work as the extraordinarily effective orchestration. It is the kind of piece that sends shivers down the spine.

Barbara Hannigan © Raphael Brand
Barbara Hannigan
© Raphael Brand

Based on Paul Griffiths’ novella of the same name, in which the author gathered all of Ophelia’s words from Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a collage, it was written specifically for Barbara Hannigan. Imagine the sounds produced by a suffering sentient being stretched as far as the vocal cords will allow, with regular tremors shooting through the vocal line by dint of stile concitato, (a device first used by Monteverdi involving clusters of repeated syllables), and you come some way to comprehending this unique musical landscape. The orchestral colours are those of the glacial north: metallic glints produced by a range of percussion instruments set
against the spectral qualities of high violins. In climes where snow blindness can be a real threat, phantasmagoria is suggested by the dazzling, dizzying vocal leaps and sudden whirlpools of sound from the full orchestra.

Hannigan moved like a master surgeon through the score, deploying the icy blade of a razor-sharp scalpel with unerring skill. She laid bare the multi-layering of Ophelia’s inner torment before tracing her descent first into darkness and then madness until, by the close of the seventh and final song, where individual notes hung in the air seemingly for an eternity, she had completely lost herself in a hallucinatory search for her lover deep in a snowy landscape. The control she exercised was itself mesmerising, her high notes perfectly pitched at the words “Snow falls”, each physical gesture used sparingly but to maximum effect. Not the least of the haunting orchestral qualities was the rustle of paper on a steel pan over wide stretches of the final song where, in Christina Rossetti’s words, “frosty wind made moan”. Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra gave sterling support to their outstanding soloist.

Sibelius’ last published symphony opened the concert. Originally called Fantasia sinfonica, it fuses elements of a slow movement, scherzo, sonata form, rondo and grand symphonic coda. As such it requires the subtlest of gear changes for its organic flow to emerge unimpeded. Rattle has long championed this composer’s seven symphonies, but I wonder whether he might love individual works a little too much. From a languorous, quite phlegmatic opening, with the gears only slowly engaged, we were rapidly thrown into choleric territory, with chattering woodwind and flecks of irritation from the upper strings. Individual episodes registered; the overall picture didn’t. The sense of longing, of an anticipated homecoming, which the oboe expresses so eloquently, got slightly lost in the flurry of other detail being picked out. With a tendency towards richness and heaviness rather than transparency in the orchestral textures, the bleakness of this particular landscape – arguably the most depressed C major in all of musical literature – was never given sufficient prominence. This was not a view of the terrain from a central vantage-point; it was more a case of nose to the ground.

If the first half had given us the northern chill-factor, there was plenty of fiery volcanic energy present in the performance of Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony in the second half. The composer’s subtitle Det Uudslukkelige suggests in Danish something unstoppable, unquenchable, inexhaustible. That was clearly Nielsen’s intention, since he provided a programmatic justification: “In case all the world were to be devastated by fire, flood or volcanoes and all things were destroyed and dead, nature would still begin to breed new life again….”. Rattle launched this symphony with a snarl, the lower strings of the LSO biting deep. He pressed on almost relentlessly at times, but in doing so he certainly captured the unsettling qualities of the score, its shifting sonorities, the harmonic bump-and-grind of its themes. With dramatic interjections from the violas and sharply edged rhythms the primary colours were often bold and brave. Like Beethoven, Nielsen thrives on conflict: this derives from the clash, and ultimate resolution, of tonalities.

Yet Rattle didn’t only emphasise the visceral nature of this wartime work (written in 1916). Instead, there was a rustic serenity to the extended passage for wind choir (the LSO players magical) at the outset of the slow movement, reminding us that this composer had one foot in the 19th century as well as the other in the 20th. In the third movement there was a poignant eloquence to the threnody delivered by the strings, underlining the fact that the horrors of war cannot simply be wished away. And then to crown this fine reading, the LSO at full throttle battled it out in the finale with two superb timpanists. As Nielsen himself said, “Music is life and, like it, inextinguishable”.

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