Hans Abrahamsen

let me tell you


Spellbinding, bewitching

“Barbara Hannigan, for whom the cycle was written, was the soloist here again, and this shining, magical score shows absolutely no sign of exhausting all its subtle beauties. Hannigan was as peerless in her soarings and coloratura precision as ever, while Gražinytė-Tyla found even more beauties in Abrahamsen’s score than Nelsons had done, from the sinister pulsings that underpin the opening song, through the touch of almost Wagnerian richness in the fourth, to the shifting clouds of microtones from which the soprano line gradually emerges in the final setting. It is an astonishing work in a remarkable concert.”
* * * * * (5 out of 5 stars)
The Guardian, Andrew Clements, 28 August 2016

“Soprano Barbara Hannigan, as much a muse as Ophelia (having instigated the commission), gave a bewitching performance, willowy arms sculpting the air. She negotiated the score’s ululating vocal line, with its repeated syllable flutters and jagged leaps with ease, colouring high notes differently each time. Ophelia’s descent into madness echoes Hamlet’s feigned insanity and the soprano is instructed in the score to sing “with broken voice”. Hannigan’s Ophelia is both fragile and fierce. In the play, Ophelia drowns herself in the brook. Here she wanders off into the snow, merging into the wintry landscape, gliding and fluttering to the ground like a drifting snowflake. And what a landscape Abrahamsen paints, clusters of microtones over the soft tread of xylophone ostinatos, silvery piccolo shards of glass and spectral high violins. Glockenspiel, celesta and harp daub their icy tintinnabulations, while paper is grazed over the skin of the bass drum. Even if Hannigan’s words did not always carry across the Royal Albert Hall’s difficult acoustic, under Gražinytė-Tyla’s hypnotic beat, the music entranced.”
Bachtrack, Mark Pullinger, 28 August 2016

“To watch Hannigan is to see Griffiths’s Ophelia come alive”

“But it was the Abrahamsen that many of us were there to hear – finally, a weighty piece with a real chance of becoming core repertoire, in contrast to the increasingly flimsy handful of disposable openers we’ve been treated to this season. The term “sound-world” gets bandied about a lot, but that’s really what Abrahamsen creates here – a sequence of often interconnected movements that seem to warp time to their will. In a curious sleight of hand, the composer’s slow-moving harmonies, often circling around a clear tonic, seem to react when set against shards of musical light from tuned and untuned percussion and high woodwind, lost in woozy clouds of microtones, creating time at once static and swift-moving. If it seems far-fetched to think of these in terms of Henri Bergson’s temps and durée – the absolute clock-time of temps and the psychological flexi-time of durée – it’s an interpretation grounded in Paul Griffiths’s gloriously allusive text (shaped only from the limited words Shakespeare’s Ophelia speaks during Hamlet), which meditates persistently on precisely this: “time of now and then tumbled into one another,/ time turned and loosed,/ time bended”.

At the centre of this still sonic world is Barbara Hannigan, the soprano whose extraordinary range and expressive capacity inspired and helped shape the work. To watch Hannigan is to see Griffiths’s Ophelia (a more emancipated, articulate creature than Shakespeare’s) come alive. The tone-colours available to her – from the white light of her denatured purity at the top of her register, to the guttural directness of the bottom – are myriad, and deployed with deft musicality and care. Together with Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO she wove a musical tale here all the potent because this Scheherazade, we know from the start, is already condemned to death.”
TheArtsDesk.com, Alexandra Coghlan, 28 August 2016

Barbara Hannigan and Mirga Gražinyté-Tyla in the Spellbinding Proms Premiere of let me tell you

“Hannigan is an extraordinary artist. She is rightly described as a “singing actress”, since her repertoire, much of it contemporary, often calls for more than just singing, and she certainly has a most compelling stage presence. Not only does she have a most beautiful voice, but that voice is a most outstandingly agile instrument, for it has a huge range of notes from very high low, and is capable, with great varieties of tone colour, of making sure footed leaps across the most demanding and awkward intervals. Hannigan feels that her Ophelia “role” should be committed to memory, and that she has done. To have absorbed such a rhythmically anchorless and tonally fractured vocal part lasting half an hour, with little respite, is an amazing feat in itself.”
Seen and Heard International, 28 August 2016

“The audience responded with one of the longest, warmest ovations for a new work I’ve ever witnessed. Doubtless this reception was due in part to the glowing voice and aura of the soprano Barbara Hannigan, who has sung all performances to date (and has made a recording of the work, for the Winter & Winter label). Ultimately, though, it is Abrahamsen’s score that causes thousands of people to stop breathing for a long moment.”
The New Yorker, Alex Ross, 22 February 2016

“Thursday’s premiere received an ovation of an intensity rarely witnessed for contemporary scores in Symphony Hall. This was thanks in no small part to the transfixing performance of the soprano Barbara Hannigan. To describe Hannigan as singing bravely and luminously from memory is accurate but also just the beginning. This soprano, who was deeply involved in the genesis of the commission and has now sung it with 11 different orchestras, inhabits this music like a home. In her hands the vocal line’s strange pulsations seem not like stylized artifice but an utterly natural reflection of the music and text’s co-created aura. It is an aura of confession addressed inward more than outward. We are hearing its echoes.”

The Boston Globe, Jeremy Eichler, 05 February 2016

Soprano Hannigan triumphs with BSO in new Abrahamsen work

“Bracketed on the program by brassy theater music by Shostakovich and Prokofiev, Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you for soprano and orchestra provided a mesmerizing, and ultimately deeply affecting, look inside the troubled spirit of Hamlet’s Ophelia.

It also showcased the unusual vocal gifts of Barbara Hannigan, who was making her BSO debut. Besides Abrahamsen himself, the Canadian soprano was the “onlie begetter” of this piece, having had the idea for it, persuaded the Berlin Philharmonic to commission it, advised the composer on advanced vocal techniques, and given the world and U.S. premieres in Berlin (led by Nelsons) and Cleveland respectively.

With an extraordinary palette of tone colors and vocal placements, discreet vibrato or flute-like straight tone that blended uncannily with orchestral instruments, pulsing vocal “bebung” on a long note, dizzying vocal leaps and high pianissimo entrances, Hannigan shaped the text by Paul Griffiths (from his novel of the same name) into a probing portrait of a female melancholy Dane.

Sparkling with the icy glint of piccolos, violin harmonics, and percussion tinkles ascending almost into the dogs-only range, Abrahamsen’s setting tore no passion to tatters, and Nelsons’s baton did not “saw the air thus.” A wintry hush blanketed the proceedings for most of the performance’s half-hour-plus length.

Yet for all its discretion, this performance suited the action to the word and the word to the action, to riveting effect. Unfolding its themes of time, memory, and love, the work broadened in its third and final part, with Hannigan’s voice on the line “So: I will go on in the snow” producing the almost-visual effect of the young woman’s spirit merging with the winter landscape.

Having tapered the work’s last pages to silence, singer and conductor held the moment a full thirty seconds before Nelsons gently laid his baton down, and a single shout of “Bravo!” started the ovation.

The audience showed its appreciation of the work, or at least of Hannigan’s breathtaking performance, by standing and applauding long and loud, bringing singer, conductor, composer Abrahamsen (looking a very un-melancholy Dane), and critic-novelist Griffiths repeatedly back to the stage.”

Boston Classical Review, David Wright, 05 February 2016

‘Let Me Tell You’ Has Its New York Premiere

“It’s not often that a performance of a challenging new piece receives the kind of ovation typically awarded star virtuosi. But that’s what happened on Sunday night at Carnegie Hall when the conductor Franz Welser-Möst led the Cleveland Orchestra in the New York premiere of the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen’s “let me tell you.” This eerily alluring 30-minute work for soprano and orchestra was written for the remarkable Barbara Hannigan, who performed it stunningly.

Ms. Hannigan, who won many admirers in New York last summer as Agnès in the Mostly Mozart Festival presentation of George Benjamin’s opera “Written on Skin,” performed “let me tell you” with matchless vocal and dramatic command (and from memory).”

The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini, 18 January 2016

Barbara Hannigan and Cleveland Orchestra stop time with Abrahamsen premiere

“Hannigan’s clear, lustrous singing was an essential part of the overall orchestral tone. She has subdued lines with a few upward bursts of ecstatic passion. The music parallels phrases like “You have made me like glass” and “So: I will go on in the snow” with brilliant sonic depictions of glass shattering and snow floating down. Most memorable were Hannigan and a flute doubling each other, or her voice alluringly accompanied by a horn. These were extraordinary sounds, and “let me tell you” is packed with such marvels.”

New York Classical Review, George Grella, 18 January 2016

“Barbara Hannigan, the avant-garde diva for whom the piece was created, sang with otherworldly élan and dauntless purity.”
* * * * * (5 out of 5 stars)

Financial Times, Martin Bernheimer, 19 January 2016

“Singing from memory, without benefit of props or costumes, Ms. Hannigan showed remarkable agility and pinpoint intonation. Her tone was choir-boy pure or richly colored, as the music required. And the Canadian soprano, who is also conducting these days, handled her part’s changing rhythmic meters, wide vocal leaps, swooping tones and “stuttering” note repetitions with aplomb. Now assertive, now impassioned, agonized or resolute, she simply told us how it was, and this listener believed every minute of it.”

Wall Street Journal, Barbara Jepson, 19 January 2016

“…soprano Barbara Hannigan held a full house in her grasp with the U.S. premiere of a new work by Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen.

Hannigan set the scene magically. With “Let Me Tell You,” a seven-part song cycle re-imagining Shakespeare’s Ophelia, the Canadian soprano on her Cleveland debut brought to life a character of haunting beauty and mystery. She intoned the carefully-selected words by Paul Griffiths with the solemnity of a Greek oracle and unfurled her prismatic, free-flowing music with bewitching elegance.

Though written for large orchestra, “Let Me Tell You” remained an intimate affair. The music, never more than sheer and rendered by the orchestra with crystal clarity, readily evoked shards of glass, shimmering light, and falling snow. The mercury seemed to drop as Hannigan sang of night, owls, and snowflakes; About her voice, supremely agile and robust, there was something immediate, something piercing.
What emerged was a character radically different from the typical portrayal. Far from fragile and delusional, Hannigan’s Ophelia was fiercely strong-willed and secure in herself. Staring down loss, she marched forward and endured. After “Let Me Tell You,” listeners, like Hannigan’s Ophelia, easily could have gone on home, wholly satisfied.”

The Plain Dealer, Zachary Lewis, 15 January 2016

Sie ist Ophelia

“Die Dame ist ein Phänomen – diesbezüglich herrscht in der Fachwelt ein seltenes Einverständnis. Wenn Barbara Hannigan singt, wird der Auftritt zu einem Ereignis. Nicht, weil sie sich dem Virtuosenzirkus hingäbe und lauter Kunststückchen machte. Nein, Hannigan ist eine unfassbar ernste, im Gespräch fast spröde Künstlerin, die ein außerordentliches Gespür für den emotionalen wie intellektuellen Gehalt der von ihr interpretierten Werke hat und alle Fähigkeiten der Expressivität, ihre Erkenntnisse auch umzusetzen. Und sie ist unglaublich freundlich, schön und voller Charme, so dass die Musiker des Symphonieorchesters des Bayerischen Rundfunks sie gar nicht gehen lassen wollen und am liebsten wohl ihre Pause für Hannigans Anwesenheit opfern würden. Jedenfalls bleiben sie stur sitzen, damit die Sängerin wieder und wieder zum Applaus aufs Podium im Herkulessaal kommt; dabei wird sie stets von Hans Abrahamsen und Paul Griffiths, also von Komponist und Textdichter von “Let Me Tell You” begleitet, was die Musiker kaum beeindruckt – sie wollen Hannigan haben.
Ist ja auch toll, wie sie sich diese Solokantate, eine Shakespeare-getreue Mutmaßung über die Wünsche, Freuden und Ängste der Ophelia, zu eigen macht. Abrahamsen hat “Let Me Tell You” für Hannigan komponiert, hat sich von ihr die Möglichkeiten der Singstimme erklären lassen. Deshalb hat dieses 2013 durch eben Hannigan und dem Dirigenten Andris Nelsons in Berlin uraufgeführte Werk nichts von den manchmal esoterisch wirkenden Expressionismen zeitgenössischer Avantgarde. Obwohl hier keine Sekunde Musik einfach stattfindet, obwohl alles geformt ist, obwohl die Singstimme teils abenteuerliche Sachen machen muss, gewagte Sprünge ebenso wie Zittern, Stammeln, Deklamieren, Flüstern in allerhöchsten Lagen – nie gewinnt man den Eindruck von etwas Artifiziellem. Abrahamsen ist ein konzilianter Komponist, mag Harmonie ebenso wie fahle Orchestereffekte, schätzt aber vor allem die Liebe mit allem Weh, für das er oft hinreißende, mitunter aber auch fast schon in Kultiviertheit erstickende Klänge findet. Hannigan jedoch erfüllt alles mit Leben, herrlich wahr.”

Süddeutsche.de, Egbert Tholl, 3 July 2015

“Vor der Pause gab es moderne Primadonnenmusik: den Orchesterliederzyklus “let me tell you”. Der Däne Hans Abrahamsen komponierte ihn der Sopranisten Barbara Hannigan in die geläufige Kehle. Und die Kanadierin zeigte wieder einmal, was sie kann: perfekte Koloraturen, hinreißende Schattierungen zwischen Flüstergesang, Mezzovoce und heftigen Ausbrüchen. Einfach bewundernswert.”

Abendzeitung, Robert Braunmüller, 4 July 2015

“Barbara Hannigan ist immer ein Ereignis. Die kanadische Sopranistin faszinierte die Münchner nach “Written on Skin” und “Die Soldaten” nun auf dem Konzertpodium. Erneut war sie zu Gast beim Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks im Herkulessaal und entführte das Publikum in die von Erinnerung und Trauer, Schmerz und Hoffnung bewegten (Seelen-)Welten der Ophelia. Basierend auf Shakespeares “Hamlet” hat Paul Griffiths die Worte Ophelias zu einer Novelle “Let me tell you” gemacht, die Hans Abrahamsen in drei Abschnitten vertonte. Barbara Hannigan war am Entstehungsprozess beteiligt, und so ist ihr die Partie in dei virtuose Kehle geschrieben.
Sie springt über weite Intervalle in absurde Höhen, stottert oder spricht. So fragil und gläsern wie ihre Stimme tönt auch die Musik, die sich nur punktuell verdichtet. Die sieben Lieder, von denen manche auseinanderwachsen, fügen sich zu einer Wahnsinnsszene der stillen Art. Zuletzt “malt” die Musik Schneeflocken, Frost und den Tod im Wasser. Abrahamsen gönnt der Ophelia ein groß besetztes Orchester, das in aparten instrumentalen Kombinationen das Psychogramm der vom Vater wie von Hamlet benutzten Liebenden zeichnet. Das gelingt den BR-Symphonikern unter Andris Nelsons vorzüglich, und so hinterlassen die Orchesterlieder einen nachhaltigen Eindruck.”

Münchner Merkur, Gabriele Luster, 4 July 2015

Guardian Critics Top 10 live events of 2014: let me tell you, performed at Symphony Hall, Birmingham

“Hans Abrahamsen’s gleaming Ophelia songcycle for the fabulous Barbara Hannigan, easily the best new work of the year.”

Let me tell you is based on Paul Griffiths’ oulipian novel of the same name, which uses only the words that Shakespeare gives to Ophelia in Hamlet to create an extended, more complex portrait of the character and her life. Griffiths and Hannigan worked with Abrahamsen to establish the text of this spare monologue, which divides into three parts. Each part is introduced with the phrase of the title and deal with the protagonist’s past, her present, in which she is deliriously in love, and what might happen to her in the future.

The result is ravishingly and astonishingly beautiful. Abrahamsen’s vocal writing makes much use of stile concitato, the repeated-note emphases that hark back to Monteverdi, and also exploits Hannigan’s ability to rise effortlessly to the limits of the soprano range. And he surrounds the voice with glistening, deliquescent textures that can seem almost weightless until a growling line in the bass brings them fluttering to earth. The music sometimes seems as much an exercise in memory as the text, touching on familiar, tonal shapes and harmonies without being explicit and embracing microtones in the final section.

Hannigan soared above it all with consummate grace and ease, while Nelsons and the orchestra made every corner of the score shine. It’s a very special piece indeed.”

* * * * * (5 out of 5 stars)
Guardian, Andrew Clements, June 2014

“Barbara Hannigan cannot be praised enough. What she does with the music and text deserves the deepest respect. I don’t think I know another singer that can be compared to her. Vocal magician, yes, but also one who has her heart and soul in the right place.”

Place de l’Opera, Basia Jaworski, March 2014

“Barbara Hannigan hat sich dieser komplizierten Sopranpartie mit all ihren reichen stimmlichen und interpretatorischen Mitteln angenommen; sie trägt sie auswendig vor. Ihr Gesang ist nicht nur gläsern präzise, sondern auch dicht mit dem von den Philharmonikern subtil schattierten Orchestersatz verbunden. So lenkt sie die Uraufführung zusammen mit Andris Nelsons sicher in den Publikumserfolg und wird ihn dem Stück auch bei den Aufführungen im nächsten halben Jahr in Skandinavien, den Niederlanden und England erringen.”

Berliner Zeitung, Peter Ãœhling, December 2013

“…die Uraufführung von Hans Abrahamsens Let me tell you mit einer aufopferungsvollen Barbara Hannigan als Ophelia. Nelsons hüllt die Sopranistin, die in Vokalisen viel Seele zeigt, in einen kristallinen Klangfluss.”

Berliner Morgenpost, Volker Blech, December 2013

Drowned in Sunlight
Andris Nelsons Conducts the Berlin Philharmonic

“Snow, light and a beautiful human being – that is a triad whose overwhelming effect Arthur Rimbaud tested long ago in his poem “Being Beauteous”. Anyone who had the good fortune to hear how soprano Barbara Hannigan sings this poem in the setting by Hans Werner Henze will have thought – at least during her singing – that no music in the world could be more enchanting than this.
Writer Paul Griffiths and composer Hans Abrahamsen probably had the same good fortune recently; perhaps they thought, “Come, let’s write something for Barbara Hannigan, something with snow, light and a beautiful human being that simply has to captivate listeners,” and that is exactly what happened. Let me tell you is the title of this seven-part cycle for soprano and orchestra. The Berlin Philharmonic gave the world premiere of the work under Andris Nelsons. It was a triumph.
Audiences at the Philharmonie do not normally welcome a contemporary work with such unbridled affection. In this case, however, both the music and the text spoke directly to the listeners. As with his novel of the same title, in Let me tell you Griffiths confined himself to the reservoir of 481 words which William Shakespeare gives Ophelia in Hamlet. Ophelia describes her emotional awakening through love as being suddenly overcome by music, being dragged into the light. The fifth song culminates with the sentence “You drowned me in sunshine and turned me into light.” The soprano voice ecstatically soars heavenward amid the shimmering of the upper strings, subtle trumpet brilliance and the glitter of metallophones. Ophelia does not drown herself as in Shakespeare’s play; she does not float away like a dead nymph amid garlands of flowers. She goes into the snow.
Hannigan produced the extremely high note with astonishing beauty – singing completely from memory – soft and clear, then floated downwards from it: “Snow falls. So: I will go on in the snow. I will have my hope with me.” Shimmering light from the high strings surrounded her. The solo clarinet sensitively accompanied her and depicted her fall: as light as snowflakes, with extreme sadness. Abrahamsen, one of Denmark’s most prominent composers, knows what the human voice is and how to intensify its impact. The orchestration is exquisite; the entire work, with its discrete and elegant neotonality, is further proof that this moderately contemporary music, which moves larger audiences and can even be shattering, comes for the most part from northern Europe nowadays.”

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, December 2013

“Nelsons fand einen fabelhaften Atem für das Stück. Man hörte das Herz dieses tragischen Flockentanzes schlagen. Barbara Hannigan, die Expertin für schwierig Zeitgenössisches, bog sich, rang mit dieser katastrophalen Liebe, schlang sich um, wuchs hinein in Klang und Orchester. Man war bewegt. Die Stille blieb lang.”
Die Welt, Elmar Krekeler, December 2013

“Der dänische Ligeti-Schüler geht wunderbar altmodisch zu Werke: Die Gedanken, die um seine Solistin kreisen, prägen dieses Werk, keine strenge Methodik. Mozart hätte es nicht anders gemacht. Barbara Hannigan, die kanadische Sopranistin, erscheint Abrahamsen als Ophelia, die sich, stotternd – ein Markenzeichen des Komponisten – ihre Vergangenheit, Gegenwart und Zukunft vor Augen führt.”
Tagesspiegel, December 2013


Hannigan produced the extremely high note with astonishing beauty – singing completely from memory – soft and clear, then floated downwards from it:
“Snow falls. So: I will go on in the snow. I will have my hope with me.”Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung