CD review: Hans Abrahamsen’s Let me tell you

First published in the Guardian on 14 January, 2016

Bavarian RSO/Nelsons/Hannigan (Winter & Winter)

“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: those floating, effortless (well, effortless-sounding) high notes, that unblinkingly pure and intensely 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 coming 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.