Microtonal tunings are absent here, but return in Wald for fifteen players (2009), which, like Schnee, is at once natural depiction (in this case of shadowy forests), cultural evocation (of horn calls, hunts and lurking mystery) and elaborate musical construct. The self-similarities of tangled woodland are echoed at several levels, from that of the opening tremulation (fourths played by two violins, microtonally and metrically displaced from one another) to that of the large-scale variation form.

The ominous yet captivating misaligned fourths from the start of Wald come back at the beginning of the work that followed: the Double Concerto for violin, piano and strings (2010-11). There are flakes, too, from Schnee, such as the chilling-exhilarating quasi-unisons of high piano and string harmonic or the dancing figures of the two fast movements. Yet this is also a work with its own character, reaching to moments of bursting brilliance or consolatory embrace.

Yet this is also a work with its own character, reaching to moments of bursting brilliance or consolatory embrace.

That, however, did not come until twenty years later. The path leading on from the piano studies turned out to be not so self-evident, and Abrahamsen’s productivity slowed, then stopped. Meanwhile, he was finding a new outlet as an arranger, notably of pieces by Bach and Nielsen. Of original compositions, only a brief Rilke setting, Herbstlied, interrupted his silence between 1990 and 1998.

Having returned to creative activity with a couple more piano studies, he then produced his first extended work in a decade and a half, the Piano Concerto he completed in 2000. Here, not for the last time, a new beginning had deep roots in his past – in the turbulent lopsided ostinatos and the contrasting stillnesses of the piano studies, and in the polyphony of type and topic that went back to Winternacht and beyond. The concerto is also thoroughly characteristic in being at once intimate and tightly crafted, as close to Schumann as it is to Stravinsky.

By the age of thirty he had produced a sizeable output: several orchestral works (Nacht und Trompeten, a luminous and dramatic nocturne, was commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic), two string quartets and numerous other pieces, mostly instrumental, including another fine example of wintry musical poetry, Winternacht.

In 1984 came a set of seven piano studies (later increased to ten), some of which, in their furious processes, strikingly anticipated Ligeti’s of the following year. Ligeti, briefly his teacher, had been one of his first heroes, for exactness and beauty, along with Steve Reich. Now the debt was repaid, and a door opened. Abrahamsen immediately arranged six of the studies to make a companionpiece for the Danish première of Ligeti’s Horn Trio (an arrangement subsequently reworked, with cello in place of horn, as Traumlieder); he also recomposed four of the pieces for large orchestra.

An early beginner – his first published works date from when he was sixteen – Abrahamsen started out with a flair for rediscovering fundamentals.

No wonder this is a composer of so much snow music, for snow shapes itself on what we know to offer the possibility of a new start. This, the new start, Abrahamsen has achieved several times, not least in his Schnee (2006-8), scored for two pianos and percussion with contrasting trios and justly esteemed one of the first classics of twenty-first-century music. Gradually crystallizing canons, playing for close on an hour, are also musical portraits of snow: its flurries, its delicacy, its cold. Though based on a modal melody, the piece is by no means white-note music; indeed, characteristic microtonal retunings, made during the course of performance, are crucial to how it sounds, beautifully blurring the counterpoint as the canons shift in and out of focus.

Resonant with the western tradition in all its facets, with ancient folk melody, with nature, with the vibrant structure of sound itself, the music of Hans Abrahamsen yet has the freshness of something untouched – untouched, and touching by being so. We are in a world we partly know. Bach and Ligeti are just over the horizon. That tune rings a bell. Memories stir of sound as clear as light. And yet everything is different.


Further awards include Singer of the Year (Opernwelt, 2013); Musical Personality of the Year (Syndicat de la Presse Francaise, 2012); Ehrenpreise (Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik 2018); and the Rolf Schock Prize for Musical Arts (2018), the multi-disciplinary prize across science and the arts, which recognises trailblazing and brilliant figures within their respective fields. Barbara Hannigan holds honorary doctorates from the University of Toronto and Mt Allison University, and was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2016. 

Hannigan’s first album as singer and conductor, Crazy Girl Crazy (Alpha Classics, 2017) – featuring works by Berio, Berg and Gershwin and with the accompanying film Music is Music, by Mathieu Amalric - won her the 2018 Grammy Award for Best Classical Solo Vocal album, the 2018 Opus Klassik award for Best Solo Vocal Performance, the 2018 Klara award for Best International Classical album and the 2018 JUNO Award for Classical Album of the Year. She continues her relationship with Alpha Classics and with her long-time collaborator and mentor, Dutch pianist Reinbert de Leeuw, for the 2018 album Vienna: Fin de Siècle. Previous recordings have garnered awards from Edison Klassiek, Grawemeyer, Victoires de la Musique Classique, Diapason and Gramophone.