Henze: voice for today

Written by: David Wordsworth

whether in his forty-odd stage works, ten symphonies, five string quartets, twenty-plus concertos, songs and choral works, or the numerous other orchestral and chamber pieces that make up a truly staggering output.

Henze once told the present writer that when he is composing if he could not imagine singing what he had written he would rub it all out to start again!

Voices: Henze at 75 features all the main areas of Henze’s immense productivity in performances by some of the composer’s closest friends and most-admired champions – Oliver Knussen, Christoph von Dohnanyi, the London Sinfonietta, Nash Ensemble and BBC Symphony Orchestra.

The festival begins with a Henze weekend – after an interview with the composer, there’s a performance of one of Henze’s most recent works, Six Songs from the Arabian, a huge song-cycle inspired by the artistry of Ian Bostridge and here sung by another leading British tenor Mark Padmore. This 45-minute work sets texts by the composer himself and inhabits a world of fantasy, monsters, witches, wizards and extraordinary characters all conjured up with Henze’s seemingly inexhaustible wit and flair. The monumental piano part is in the safe hands of Andrew West. Voices, which is performed in the evening concert, is on an even larger scale, a full
evening’s “entertainment”, written as a gift for the London Sinfonietta in 1973 and marking a particularly close relationship between the composer, orchestra and its music director Oliver Knussen. Voices is an exciting and bewilderingly eclectic collection of 22 songs in many languages, scored for two solo voices and a large and constantly-changing ensemble including such exotic additions as a mandolin, an electric guitar, an ocarina, a banjo and a huge collection of percussion. The style of the songs ranges from cabaret to Lieder, by way of folk-music and music-theatre – comedy, tragedy, political and emotional involvement, subjects never far away from Henze’s world.

The wind orchestra of the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester visits the festival on March 11th at 5.30pm. The RNCM mounted a big Henze festival in 1998 and staggered everyone, not least the composer, with the standard of performance. The wind orchestra is one of the best anywhere and so these performances of the early Piano Concertino, Apollo Triofante (a paraphrase from a full-length ballet score) and two lighter works – The Adventures of Don Quixote and the outrageous Ragtimes & Habaneras – should be memorable. Following will be the contribution of the BBC Singers and Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin – the UK premiere of Henze’s recent Wagner Songs – a sixty-minute transformation/arrangement of two books of French and German songs by the young Richard Wagner.

The Nash Ensemble is another British group with whom Henze has had several collaborations and it is performing an all-Henze concert at the Purcell Room under the baton of Diego Masson on March 22nd. The starry line-up of soloists includes the soprano Lisa Milne who will join baritone Wolfgang Holzmair in Drei Lieder uber den Schnee (Three Snow Songs). Mr Holzmair will also give the UK premiere of a new version of the delightful Five Neapolitan Songs of 1956, which have been performed many times in their original orchestral guise, but here appear in a reduced version for nine players. These are amongst the first works to reflect Henze’s love of all things Italian, where he made his home in the late 1940s. Their light, wistful and nostalgic soundworld are a perfect contrast to the much more serious and impressive Piano Quintet of which the composer has written: “Together with Chamber Music 1958 and the Viola Sonata, I think this represents the most complete chamber music I have written”. Piano Quintet is one of the clearest examples of Henze’s interest in the classical tradition. Paul Watkins will play the little Capriccio for Cello Solo and the other work in the Nash’s programme will be the miniature Five Nocturnes for violin and piano written by an insomniac composer during a Caribbean winter holiday in 1970.

Another major Henze champion, Christoph von Dohnanyi, appears with the Philharmonia Orchestra on March 29th and fascinatingly pairs Henze’s 5th Symphony, an evocation of what the composer calls “the human world and scenery of Rome” with the most famous 5th of all – Beethoven’s. Henze’s 5th is a virtuoso work written for Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. As well as Yefim Bronfman’s performance of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, the Philharmonia will give the UK premiere of Henze’s Fraternite described as an “air for orchestra”. This was also written for the New York Philharmonic, this time for the millennium celebrations.

A particularly fascinating concert takes place at the Purcell Room on the afternoon of March 31st. The enterprising Endymion Ensemble have for several years given a series called Composer Choice, in which leading figures have chosen works of their own to be programmed alongside pieces by other composers that they admire or that have had an influence on them. Previous composers have included Turnage, Bryars, Goehr, Knussen, Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle, Benjamin and, most recently, MacMillan and Tavener. Henze will introduce his chosen pieces, which include the early Kammersonate for piano trio, the little harpsichord solo Lucy Escott Variations – a set of variations on an aria from Bellini’s La sonnambula and a homage to the nineteenth-century coloratura-soprano Lucy Escott. The harpsichord appears again in one of Henze’s earliest works, the rarely-performed Apollo et Hyazinthus, a set of improvisations on a setting of a poem by Georg Trakl that is sung by an alto soloist at the end of the work. Henze has also chosen a work by Stravinsky, Duo Concertante, possibly the twentieth-century composer that has influenced Henze more than any other, and, showing his continuing commitment to young composers, Henze has commissioned a work by Kenneth Hesketh called Netsuke.

The “Recital” for four musicians, El Cimarron, is one of Henze’s most overtly political and musically avant-garde pieces, written between 1969 and 1970. Neither song-cycle nor totally music-theatre, this curious and fascinating work tells of Esteban Montejo, an old Afrocuban, who recalls his life as a slave. As well as an extensive range of instruments played by the percussionist, the singer, flautist and guitarist are also required to sing and play other instruments. The extraordinary performance by Steven Bowen and Psappha Ensemble has already been seen at several UK festivals and is worth catching at this rare London performance, again on the 31st.

This South Bank Centre festival ends on April 4th with a Henze masterpiece – Requiem – a purely instrumental work consisting of what the composer calls “Nine Spiritual Concertos” for large chamber orchestra with two soloists – piano and trumpet – in this performance Paul Crossley and Hakan Hardenberger with, once again, the Philharmonia and Dohnanyi. Henze describes the piece as being “concerned with the human fears and needs of our time, with illness, death, love and loneliness, and in particular with the character of Michael Vyner (Artistic Director of the London Sinfonietta), an extremely lively and passionate man, his life and death, and my grief at his loss which stands for the loss of so many others who have also tragically departed from our world”. Requiem’s nine movements are entitled Introitus, Dies Irae, Ave Verum Corpus, Lux Aeterna, Rex Tremendae, Agnus Dei, Tuba Mirum, Lacrimosa and Sanctus. A remarkable, epic and moving score with which to close Voices.

  • Voices: Henze at 75 begins on Saturday 10 March with an interview with Hans Werner Henze at 2pm in the Purcell Room. That’s followed, at 4pm, by Mark Padmore and Andrew West performing Six Songs from the Arabian. At 8 o’clock in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Oliver Knussen conducts Voices
  • Sunday evening at 5.30, the Royal Festival Hall welcomes the RNCM Wind Orchestra, and at 7.30 the BBC Singers and Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin give the UK premiere of Richard Wagnersche Klavierlieder
  • Other dates are March 22, 25, 29, 31 and April 4
  • Henze is interviewed again on April 4 at 6pm in the RFH prior to the Philharmonia’s performance of Requiem at 7.30
  • RFH Box Office 020 7960 4201
  • Book Online www.rfh.org.uk
  • For a Henze series brochure call 020 7921 0971
  • As an associate event, the Royal Opera House is performing Henze’s Boulevard Solitude on March 20, 23, 26, 29 and April 2 & 4
  • Royal Opera House Box Office 020 7304 4000
  • Hans Werner Henze will be 75 on 1 July
  • Read Leonard Slatkin’s preview of his next BBCSO concert

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