Barbara Hannigan Soprano
Cantabile for strings
Let me tell you for soprano and orchestra Première of a work commissioned by the Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker with the support of the Danish Arts Foundation
Symphony No. 4 in E minor
At the beginning of his composing career, the Danish Nørgård and Ligeti student Hans Abrahamsen was considered a key figure in “New Simplicity” – a movement originating in Germany, which in the 1970’s saw itself as a counterweight to serialism with minimalist, neoclassical and/or neo-romantic moments. Hans Abrahamsen’s orchestral piece Nacht und Trompeten, commissioned by the Berliner Philharmoniker, was premiered in the Philharmonic Hall conducted by Hans Werner Henze in late March 1982. This time the premiere of his orchestral song cycle Let me tell you is on the programme, based on the novella of the same name by Paul Griffiths and dedicated to Barbara Hannigan.
This will be preceded by a work from another Nordic composer: the atmospheric Cantabile for strings by Pēteris Vasks, who in his home country is often referred to as “Latvia's ambassador in music.” The Latvian shooting star Andris Nelsons will then conduct Johannes Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, performed for the first time on 25 October 1885 in Meiningen. One witness of the successful concert was 21-year old Richard Strauss, who was residing there as Hans von Bülow’s assistant. In a letter to his father he reported enthusiastically about an “enormous work”: “[…] it is difficult to define in words all the splendour that this work contains – you can only listen to it and raptly admire it again and again.”
After the Berlin premiere on 1 February 1886 Joseph Joachim noted how very much the “downright gripping movement of the whole thing, the density of the contrivance, the wonderfully intricate growth of the motives” had impressed him: “I […] believe the E minor is my favourite of the four symphonies.”
The debate on nationalism and modernism in music is over. Let’s talk about regions instead. Since the Grail castle of the avant-garde crumbled, wholly new perspectives have opened up in strange, previously unexplored musical landscapes, whose attraction lies not least in their appearance of familiarity. Arvo Pärt’s success is founded on just such a connection between old and new. Pēteris Vasks is also enjoying increasing international renown among musicians and listeners. He is now Latvia’s best-known composer, even displacing the important symphonist Jānis Ivanovs.
Born in 1946, Vasks is the son of a Baptist pastor, and he has been profoundly influenced by his faith as well as by his country’s musical tradition. His compositional training at the conservatory in Riga was thwarted by Soviet religious repression, and so he studied in Vilnius. Even today, he regards himself as self-taught. Other strong influences on his music have come from works of Polish and North American modernism, but his primary concern is expressiveness, with avant-garde techniques placed at the service of that objective. There are aleatory sections in his Cantabile for strings (1979), in which the musicians may play whatever they wish – but this procedure is not made to draw attention to itself and is instead seamlessly integrated in the compositional conception as a whole. In spite of some gentle dissonances, the work is light-filled and conflict-free. In his own words, Vasks has attempted to express “how beautiful and harmonious the world is”. This composer is preoccupied with freedom, faith and love, with humanistic values per se. His music for strings rarely recalls Ivanovs, thus all the more clearly that of Sibelius.
Hans Abrahamsen would not like being labelled “typically Nordic”, yet it’s hard to overlook the fact that his music comes from a different cultural region than central European modernism. This is betrayed by three characteristic features of an aesthetic orientation shared by nearly all composers from northern Europe: Abrahamsen often refers in his titles to natural phenomena (October, Schnee, Wald, Storm og Stille etc.); he cultivates an idiom of poetic-romantic intensity; and he conducts a substantive discourse with the musical past, not entirely forsaking the laws of triadic harmony but constantly reformulating them.
Even his latest work let me tell you, an Ophelia monologue, is by no means free from regional associations: Shakespeare’s Hamlet, of course, is set at Elsinore. let me tell you was written in collaboration with the Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan and the Welsh author Paul Griffiths, based on the latter’s novel of the same name, which uses only the vocabulary of 481 words granted by Shakespeare to Hamlet’s ill-fated lover. Abrahamsen’s let me tell you is divided into three parts – Past, Present and Future; the first part is subdivided in three, the second and third each in two.
Beginning in the broadest tempo and with barely audible pedal tones, Part I leads us into Ophelia’s intensely nightmarish world. Her voice, initially in stuttering vocalises, formulates the sentence “Let me tell you how it was”. In the second section (“O but memory is not one but many”), semiquaver (16th-note) triplets on the strings generate a calm underlying sense of foreboding, also conveyed in some of Ophelia’s vocal outbreaks, before the section dies away orchestrally in ppp. In the third section (“There was a time”), the composer intends for the music to suggest a limping gait.
Part II starts out like Part I, in both tempo and expressive character, with the soprano uttering almost the same hesitant vocalises; but then it picks up speed as it moves into the present and describes the love for Hamlet that has transformed Ophelia’s existence. The second section begins ff, with Ophelia’s delivery disrupted by pauses. An intensifying quaver (eighth-note) motion enters on various instruments as well as in the vocal line – on Ophelia’s cries of “Ah” which the composer twice inserts into the line “What will make the difference is if you are with me”. This is the composition’s turning point and climax: “for you are my sun!” In an interlude the orchestra comments on this turn, Ophelia interspersing effusive cries before continuing with her paean to Hamlet, which eventually turns into an endless D major vocalise (“light that cannot end”).
In Part III, Ophelia devotes herself to the dream of a future that we know will never come. The short first section is a monologue in monotone; the second (“I will go out now”) buries the flower metaphor of her last entrance in Shakespeare’s play under (musical) images of snow. The extremely refined percussion ensemble and the out-of-tune string harmonies musically underscore the hallucinatory atmosphere, while the shattered tonality symbolizes Ophelia’s mental state before her watery suicide.
And what of Johannes Brahms? The regional imprint in his music is conspicuous, more so than the national. The Hamburg native had a wonderful knack for assimilating – he became Viennese, discovering a love for Schubert and Strauss, for Bohemian and Hungarian music. His surroundings always penetrated what he was writing. Even in his symphonies, a genre of highest abstraction, Brahms rarely abjured the genius loci. This regional impression is particularly apparent in No. 4. Brahms made the following observation abou this symphony conceived in Mürzzuschlag: “The cherries here don’t ripen and never become edible.” It may well be that the barren Styrian landscape had sought out Brahms in 1884, but the following year it was Brahms who sought this landscape in order to complete his last symphony.
The work begins with a stunning invention: Brahms juxtaposes only a pair of intervals, falling 3rds and rising 6ths. The precedent for such a beginning – making everything out of nothing – was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which develops out of descending 5ths. But Brahms doesn’t exploit his material for demonic conflict: in the very first bars he evokes an autumnally glowing spiritual landscape, filled in equal measure with longing and renunciation. Moments of struggle, even some that could be described as chivalrous, only become evident in the second theme.
The Andante is a romance filled with medieval associations, while the third movement, a stormy scherzo marked Allegro giocoso, is downright raucous in its high spirits, almost verging on tastelessness. Styrian sour cherries can’t really explain this music; a more likely explanation might be found in the product of local vineyards. The finale is overwhelmingly rugged and powerful, rigorously renouncing any personal entitlement to happiness. Brahms employs the Baroque form of the passacaglia but forges it into something contemporary, something new, much like the composers Arvo Pärt and Pēteris Vasks in our day: a process apparently removed from the urban mainstream which leads to especially successful and enduring results.