Classical Perspectives

Shakespeare’s Ophelia Finds a New Voice




Barbara Hannigan (Vocals), Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Andris Nelsons, Hans Abrahamsen (Composer), based on a text by Paul Griffiths

Winter & Winter

Hans Abrahamsen already had a dedicated core of admirers in the year 2015. New-music cognoscenti who admired the exquisite craft of pieces like Abrahamsen’s Schnee–a collection of chamber pieces that bend pitch and time into warped layers of mesmerizingly woven sound–should not have been surprised to hear that his recent song cycle, let me tell you (2013) was announced this fall as the winner of the 2016 Grawemeyer Award, the composing world’s highest honor.

But they might still be surprised by just how lovely this new piece is, as demonstrated by a new recording on the great German boutique label Winter & Winter. let me tell you is a monodrama on a text by novelist and classic critic Paul Griffiths, retelling the story of Ophelia from Hamlet in her own words–literally, her own words, as the text was composed entirely using only the words her character actually utters in the play.

Barbara Hannigan and Hans Abrahmsen discuss the latter’s Grawemeyer Award winning composition let me tell you, now available on disc from Winter & Winter. Video includes rehearsal scenes.

And while Abrahamsen once again demonstrates a mastery of tightly controlled compositional processes and of intensely vivid timbre and harmony, he also writes something surprisingly generous for the orchestra–here, the Bavarian Radio Symphony under Andris Nelsons–including moments of warmth and brightness that make the emotional content of the piece as legible to the ear as those dizzying polyrhythms. All the wild, new gestures that populate the piece only serve to make it that much more striking when members of the orchestra suddenly join in doubling the soprano’s strange, zigzagging vocal melody, as if it were the tune from an old-fashioned opera.

In Barbara Hannigan, Abrahamsen has found an ideal interpreter for this vast and varied monodrama, which hints at a 21st-Century take on the 19th-century operatic “mad scene.” So far, Hannigan has starred in two of the most sensational New York opera premieres this century–Benjamin’s Written on Skin and Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre–stunning audiences with a combination of fearless stage presence and flawless precision. The sheer warmth, clarity and loveliness of her performance here suggest that her interpretation will help make the piece’s New York premiere later this month one of the most talked-about new-music events of 2016. –-Daniel Stephen Johnson, posted at, January 4, 2016


Hans Abrahamsen
Hans Abrahamsen



‘…one of the most spellbindingly beautiful vocal-orchestral works of recent years…’

“Let me tell you how it was.” A mysterious, ululating soprano line opens Hans Abrahamsen’s song cycle–a setting of Paul Griffiths’s novella that uses only words spoken by Shakespeare’s Ophelia, and one of the most spellbindingly beautiful vocal-orchestral works of recent years. It was created for soprano Barbara Hannigan and is a stunning vehicle for her, with its floating, effortless-sounding high notes and pure, expressive tone. Her Ophelia is intense and fragile, sensuous and febrile; her phrasing is elastic and tasteful. Abrahamsen’s orchestral writing is typically spare and wintry–a magical panoply of spangly microtonal sounds come from Andris Nelsons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, but it’s also darker, more lush and more bristling than his most austere works. The piece won this year’s $100,000 Grawemeyer award and it’s easy to hear why. –Kate Molleson, The Guardian, January 14, 2016


Excerpts from Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you, with commentary by Barbara Hannigan


‘…Hannigan has made this piece completely her own…’

Released on January 8, just a week before her U.S. premiere of the work with The Cleveland Orchestra, Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan’s recording of Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you with Andris Nelsons and the Bavarian Radio Orchestra should count as one of the most important new music CDs of 2016.

Everything about this recording project is interesting. It’s the result of a commission by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Danish Arts Foundation that forged a close collaboration among the librettist, Paul Griffiths (the Welsh-born former music critic of The New Yorker and The New York Times), the composer, Hans Abrahamsen (a Dane obsessed with the idea of snow), and the soloist, Barbara Hannigan (a well-known conductor as well as a singer whose repertory ranges from Mozart’s Don Giovanni to George Benjamin’s Written on Skin).

‘Let me tell you how it was: I Part,’ from Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you

‘Let me tell you how it is: II Part,’ from Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you

Also interesting is that the libretto is drawn from Griffiths’ 2008 novel of the same name, which uses only the 481 words that Ophelia utters in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet. They’re rearranged here into seven brief poems that touch on the ideas of “memory, time, light, music, glass, and snow” (Cleveland Orchestra program notes).

The resulting composition, for large orchestra used in exquisitely wrought combinations of instruments and only occasionally in full force, is a captivating piece that impresses on first hearing and sticks in the mind and memory.

Abrahamsen, who has written works entitled Winter Night (1978), Two Snow Dances (1985, for recorders), Schnee (2008, for two pianos and percussion), Snow Pictures (2013, for piano quartet), and is at work on an opera based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, sets the bar high for the solo soprano, and Hannigan–who performs the piece from memory in concerts–fully embraces all its challenges. The composer calls for some very high singing (clearly and effortlessly accomplished), extended techniques that recall Claudio Monteverdi’s trillos (riveting), and a style of text declamation that would challenge any singer (easily dispatched and understandable even when words are stretched out seemingly beyond intelligibility).

O but memory is not one but many: I Part, from Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you

Abrahamsen’s writing is vivid, evocative, and in one climax during the fifth stanza (“You have made me like glass–like glass in an ecstasy from your light”), a riot of transparent color raining down in cascades. The piece ends in a ravishing denouement of microtonal writing (“Snow falls. So: I will go on in the snow. I will have my hope with me.”)

Hannigan has made this piece completely her own, and radiates its charm, power–and even its ambiguity and elusiveness–to the listener. –-Daniel Hathaway in, January 13, 2016

 ‘You have made me like glass—like glass in an ecstasy from your light…’ (Photo of Barbara Hannigan copyright Elmer de Haas)
‘You have made me like glass—like glass in an ecstasy from your light…’ (Photo of Barbara Hannigan copyright Elmer de Haas)

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