Germany Musikfest Berlin  – Abrahamsen and Messiaen: Barbara Hannigan (soprano), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 11.9.2019. (MB)
Hans Abrahamsen – let me tell you (2013)
Messiaen – Éclairs sur l’Au-Delà (1987-91)
Written for Barbara Hannigan and the Berlin Philharmonic, Hans Abrahamsen’s song-cycle, let me tell you, has garnered plentiful plaudits, including the 2016 Grawemeyer Prize. On a first hearing, it was not difficult to understand why, even if – a matter of taste, no more than that – its neoromanticism became for me at times a little wearing. For underlying a musical foreground whose somewhat saccharine language verges on the reactionary, structure and finely-honed compositional craft are present and meaningful. The verbal text, drawn by the composer from a novella by Paul Griffiths whose vocabulary is restricted to the words spoken by Hamlet’s Ophelia, serves its purpose well as a springboard for song, though I cannot say that makes me eager to read the novella itself. There is, moreover, no doubting the work’s vocal qualities, ranging from intriguing reinvention of the Monteverdian genere concitato to a genuinely extraordinary relationship between soprano and instruments of similar or still higher range, in which colours echo, pierce, and fuse. Hannigan’s response was predictably outstanding, likewise the interplay between her voice and the LSO players, especially woodwind, tuned percussion, and violins, wisely guided by Simon Rattle. If I found a slight tentativeness to some of the playing in the very first song, that was soon forgotten – and may have been more a matter of adjustment to an acoustic very different from and far superior to the orchestra’s Barbican home. This was a performance, as it was a work, amounting to considerably more than the sum of its parts. And whilst I had my doubts during the performance, evidently not shared by an enthusiastic audience, on reflection I think the audience may well have been right.
It was Messiaen’s Éclairs sur l’Au-Delà that had been the real attraction for me, though, and a fine performance indeed it turned out to be. Even if I sometimes found myself missing the particular colours a French orchestra might have brought to this music – the Paris Opéra orchestra on Myung Whun Chung’s recording, for instance – there was again no doubting the all-round excellence of the LSO here. If the work has ever been treated to superior playing from massed flutes and percussion, I should be astonished; I doubt even that any performance will have matched those players here. Certainly the LSO wind brooked no dissent in the implacable, mystical opening ‘Apparition du Christ glorieux’. One could imagine the music transcribed for organ, yet never did the instruments imitate Messiaen’s beloved instrument; composer and performers alike were far too skilled for that. Rattle handled the twin imperatives of continuity and contrast in the ensuing ‘La constellation du Sagittaire’ with palpable understanding, paving the way surely for the surprises, even when one ‘knew’, of flute birdsong, superlatively despatched; mysterious violin harmonics; and Indian rhythms. If I found ‘L’Oiseau-Lyre et la Ville-Fiancée’ a little hard-driven – pretty much my sole cavil – it was rhythmically tight and vivid throughout, percussion of all varieties typically incisive. The apocalyptic cacophony of ‘Les élus marqués du sceau’ proved as mysterious, as inscrutable, as anything in Stockhausen.
Inscrutable in a very different way was the fifth movement, ‘Demeurer dans l’Amour’, the sweet ecstasy of its violins, Turangalîla and indeed Tristan reimagined, an object lesson in communication of sentiment without sentimentality. I was, moreover, fascinated to hear so clear an invitation from Messiaen, harmony notwithstanding, to listen intervallically: just as keen, just as meaningful as in the music of some forty years earlier. There was no doubting that this was the true heart, in more than one sense, of the work, balanced as it was by apocalyptic fervour on its other side, in ‘Les sept Anges aus sept trompettes’. Gareth Davies’s flute solo in ‘Et Dieu essuiera toute larme de leurs yeux’ was, to put it simply, perfectly judged.
Then came ‘Les étoiles et la Gloire’: the apocalypse once again, terrifying in that this might have been truly the work of God or the Devil – and how could we know? Three sets of tubular bells (and three players), xylophone, glockenspiel, marimba, and so much else: a second heart, perhaps, to the work, even a heart of darkness. This listener emerged from it awestruck, as, in quite a different way, he did from the veritable dawn chorus of ‘Plusieurs oiseaux des arbres de Vie’, woodwind onstage and beyond (au-delà?) There was no need for visibility in ‘Le chemin d I’Invisible’ when music rendered whoever He was so palpably present. The sense of completion, not just of this work, but (almost) of Messiaen’s musical life was keen in ‘Le Christ, lumière du Paradis’. Its kinship, from the opening chord, with the final movement of the early L’Ascension, ‘Prière du Christ montant vers son Père’, was clear, as was the reality that this was a different, if related, path to be taken. There was surely much theology as well as music in that thought – and prayer – alone. This was unquestionably – Messiaen tends no more to questioning than does Bach – a blessed, luminous, and in every sense sweet assurance.