The Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst, and super-soprano Barbara Hannigan scored a triumph this week in the U.S. première of Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen’s monodrama for soprano let me tell you. The work recently won the 2016 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. The cycle, in three parts and seven “songs”, uses a text by Welsh-born author and critic Paul Griffiths, based on his novel let me tell you, an imaginary narrative as told by Ophelia using the 481 words she speaks in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Although the words in the cycle are taken from the novel, they are more generalized. The seven poems deal with time, light, snow, glass and music. Griffiths’ text concerns the past (“Let me tell you how it was.”), the present (“Let me tell you how it is.”) and the future (“I know you are there. I know I will find you. Let me tell you how it will be.”)

Barbara Hannigan © Raphael Brand
Barbara Hannigan
© Raphael Brand
The words, haunting and vague beyond their literal sense, are set to equally elusive music with astonishingly arresting sounds and orchestration.

Hans Abrahamsen’s vocal lines are long and disconnected, not lyrical in any normal sense, yet with clear melodic connection across octaves of range. There are often spaces between words, sometimes even between syllables. There is no textual repetition. Many passages make use of an early Baroque vocal ornament, the trillo, in which the singer rapidly repeats the same note on a single syllable. Barbara Hannigan matched the work’s elusive quality in her performance. She was called upon to enter on exposed high notes, pianissimo; perform coloratura upward scales; and maintain long legato passages, with purity of tone and sureness of pitch. Hannigan makes a specialty of the most difficult contemporary vocal music. Her performance of let me tell you was beyond praise.

Hans Abrahamsen has matched Griffiths’ ethereal texts with orchestrations to match, often very quiet, allowing for maximum clarity of the vocal line. The accompaniments are so subtlely organized in support of the text, that “text painting” was not immediately apparent. The fifth song concerns bells, sunlight and glass. It is not until the soprano sings “You have sun-blasted me, and turned me into light,” that Abrahamsen’s music shatters ecstatically into a million glittering shards of sound, descending at different speeds, textures and timbres. The final song’s depiction of snowfall is still and icy, with the singer’s last words “I will go on.” fading to silence. Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra were brilliant in their orchestral support. At the end, Welser-Möst held the capacity audience suspended in silence for the better part of thirty seconds before allowing applause, which was enthusiastic. Hans Abrahamsen was present for the performance and to accept the plaudits of audience and performers.

The second half of the program was occupied with Dmitri Shostakovich’s hour-long Symphony no. 4 in C minor. The contrast with Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you could not have been more stark. The Abrahamsen was precise, crystalline, mysterious; the Shostakovich was bombastic, heroic, and sprawling. The first and last movements each last a half hour, and the first movement has a structure that defies easy analysis. Composed in 1934-36 during Stalin’s Soviet reign of terror, the symphony was not performed until 1961.

Just holding the audience’s attention for this monumental work is a challenge that Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra were up to. It is an “all hands on deck” work, with every inch of space on the Severance Hall stage occupied. Even if the overall framework was opaque, the individual episodes were colorful as they rode by in this ongoing musical parade. And there were many episodes quite lightly scored, and, throughout, many opportunities for the orchestra’s solo players, notably two piccolos, trombone, and violin, among many others. The Cleveland Orchestra’s percussion section, expanded to six players and two timpanists, must be mentioned for their heroic efforts throughout. Welser-Möst led a performance than was finely calibrated, never mired in details (although the details were there), but kept moving inevitably forward.