Winter & Winter
When the 35-minute song cycle “let me tell you” won the 2016 Grawemeyer Award for Music last November, few classical music fans had heard of its composer, a mild-mannered Dane named Hans Abrahamsen. The soprano for whom he wrote the work, Barbara Hannigan, is not exactly a household name either. With any luck, this recording will remedy that. Between Abrahamsen’s intricate, luminous orchestration and Hannigan’s achingly musical performance, “let me tell you” ranks as one of the most compelling contemporary works for voice and orchestra.
The clever and beautiful text, by librettist and author Paul Griffiths, is constructed solely from the 481 words allotted to Ophelia in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Rearranged and duplicated, the words reveal a fresh, new character eager to tell her story to a 21st-century audience. Ophelia comes across as confident and thoughtful, yet still vulnerable. In several of the cycle’s seven songs, Abrahamsen borrows a vocal effect (“trillo”) from Monteverdi where notes are repeated rapidly as if Ophelia is stammering.
Breathtaking moments are everywhere. Perhaps the most memorable orchestral passage arrives in the fifth song. As Ophelia addresses her (imaginary?) lover with the words “You sun-blasted me and turned me to light,” the orchestra, roiling in chaos, suddenly turns crystalline, descending in shards of glass. In terms of vocals, none matches the moment in the final song where, on the phrase “snow falls,” Hannigan launches a delicate, radiant high C out of thin air. A YouTube video from an Amsterdam performance finds one violinist fighting back tears as Hannigan’s note falls back into the orchestra.
That’s the kind of effect the music tends to have on audiences. I saw it firsthand when Hannigan gave the New York premiere at Carnegie Hall in January with the Cleveland Orchestra. This recording benefits from the detailed reading of conductor Andris Nelsons, who led the world premiere in 2013, and nuanced playing from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Rarely do music, words and performance so brilliantly coalesce.
One note: The album contains only “let me tell you,” and at full price it may strike some as disproportionately expensive. Still, after the devastating final scene, where Ophelia slowly walks alone into a landscape of snow, it’s hard to imagine following with anything but silence.
La Dolce Volta
A few years back, the French pianist Roger Muraro created something of a sensation with the release of Liszt’s famous but seldom-recorded transcription of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.” Muraro believes that much of 20th-century piano music is deeply indebted to Liszt. His latest recording, “Liszt: The Piano of Tomorrow,” eloquently illustrates that point of view.
Muraro imbues the “Fantasie and Fugue on B-A-C-H,” a piece prone to blustery overplaying, with an aura of rapt mystery, including a fugue that grows sinister in its disregard of tonality. Two Wagner transcriptions, the “Spinning Song” from “The Flying Dutchman” and “Isolde’s Liebestod,” are given full orchestral dimension, without sacrificing clarity of detail or exceeding the limits of what might be sung.
Unfortunately, in some circles, the much-abused “Hungarian Rhapsodies” still give license for distortion and vulgarity. Muraro’s Tenth Rhapsody is antidotal, with a folkloristic approach suggesting the purity of Bartók. The piquant charm of the tunes is captured against a colorful background evoking the freedom and audacity of 19th-century gypsy bands. And if the tidal currents of the Strait of Messina are vividly portrayed in “St. Francis Walking on the Waves,” Muraro keeps the devout piety of Francis of Paola center stage.
But it is the B minor Sonata, a piece represented in the catalogues by about 200 recordings at any given moment, that is Muraro’s singular achievement. His interpretation combines French objectivity with a close and deeply personal reading that opens up the vast topography of this Romantic masterpiece onto vistas of rare grandeur. I can’t think of another recording more engaged or heartfelt. Muraro’s probing intelligence and keen sense of proportion allow him to bypass externals, revealing this music’s compelling humanity.