A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Overture, Op.21
let me tell you [UK premiere]
Symphonia Domestica, Op.53
Barbara Hannigan (soprano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 18 June, 2014
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham, England
It was likely Andris Nelsons having conducted the world premiere in Berlin last December which made possible this UK premiere of Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you (2013) in Birmingham. Now in his early-60s, the Danish composer attracted wide attention during the 1970s and 1980s for his fastidious chamber and orchestral pieces, and if his output these past two decades has been sparing, those works that have emerged represent a triumph of quality over quantity as certain of his contemporaries (not least in the UK) would do well to emulate.
Set to evocative lines by Paul Griffiths which are centred around the character of Ophelia, the work comprises seven songs that fall into three larger parts (of three, two and two songs respectively) and whose outlining of a ‘before, now and after’ trajectory provides the focus for the arching intensity of its half-hour span. Essentially songs 1, 4 and 6 are anticipations of what will come to fruition during songs 2, 5 and 7 – the exception being the third, in which the speculative vocal line is underpinned by a stealthy progress in the lower registers which evokes the motion of – without ever becoming – a passacaglia. Elsewhere the writing is of an intricacy and translucency that effortlessly carries the word-setting as it pivots between thoughts of oblivion and transcendence – before eventually being subsumed into the orchestral whole.
The CBSO acquitted itself ably in music that is texturally complex for all its audible harmonic clarity, though it was Barbara Hannigan who – not unreasonably – stole the show with a rendering (from memory) of the solo part that did full justice to its often high-flown melisma and its airborne flights of fancy. Nelsons directed with a sure sense of where the music was headed, not least in the closing pages with their tapering off into infinity, and then holding applause at bay until the final sounds had receded beyond earshot.
More such ethereal goings-on had opened the concert with an account of Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826) that, if it marginally undersold the more expressive and heroic facets, was alive to those fantastical aspects that are to the fore throughout much of its length.
After the interval, Nelsons continued his traversal of Strauss’s orchestral output with the least-often heard of the composer’s later tone poems. Perhaps the indulgent scenario of Symphonia Domestica (1903) has militated against its being taken seriously, though such a narrative need not impede appreciation of one of Strauss’s most immediately enjoyable scores – its four main sections a day in the life of a bourgeois couple as well as the nearest approximation to a four-movement symphony in his maturity. So the exposition of amiably contrasted themes is put through its developmental paces in a lively scherzo, then a lullaby initiates the ‘love scene’ which acts as an extended interlude prior to the finale that reprises the main ideas with a cumulative excitement spilling over into the effervescent coda.
For all its equanimity, Symphonia Domestica is among Strauss’s most contrapuntally exacting scores and, while not all its textural problems were clarified here (a pity, too, that the quartet of saxophones did not make its insinuating presence felt more keenly), the balance between short-term incident and long-term cohesion was impressively brought off – making one look forward to its release on Orfeo in due course. A pity, though, that surtitles were deployed to chart the narrative progress – an aspect of the music which is best heard and not seen.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for seven days afterwards)
- CBSO www.cbso.co.uk