Leonard Slatkin previews his 11 March BBCSO concert

Written by: Colin Anderson

Actually it’s not Leonard this time, but a stand-in! On Sunday 11 March, in the Royal Festival Hall, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers participate in Voices: Henze at 75, the South Bank Centre’s tribute to Hans Werner Henze.

This is a concert of transformations, three works, six composers – the story of music written for domestic purposes extended and amplified for the concert hall by creators working much later than the period the originals date from. A continuation of tradition, all the involved composers’ personalities remain discernible – more or less!

First off is an organ work by JS Bach, his canonic variations on the chorale ’Vom Himmel hoch,’ which Stravinsky gives to brass instruments and then proceeds to dress the five variations in sharply-defined instrumental colours, which remind me of Respighi’s The Birds, itself an arrangement of earlier music. From the second variation, Stravinsky adds a choir intoning the chorale text – ’I come from heaven on high, bringing good news…’ – as set by Bach in his Christmas Oratorio.

Like Stravinsky, Henze, a Stravinsky disciple, adds extra lines of counterpoint to his arrangements, which have included Monteverdi, Telemann and Wagner. Having already fashioned a version of the Wesendonck-Lieder, Henze has now been attracted to Wagner’s early songs. Richard Wagnersche Klavierlieder was first performed in 1999 and takes 17 songs, all originally with piano accompaniment, and extends their range. In two sets, setting German and French texts – which will straddle the interval in this concert (the cycle plays for around 55 minutes) – Henze retains Wagner’s optional chorus and adds harmonies and instrumental colours Wagner probably wouldn’t have thought of.

To this listener, the German part – nine songs, seven of which set Goethe’s Faust – remind of Schumann with echoes of Berlioz and Mahler, the latter omnipresent in the last number, jaunty and rustic, Henze adding details that remind of Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale. The preceding song requires the mezzo-soprano to use ’sprechgesang’; if this suggests Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Henze’s treatment is more like Weill in cabaret-mode. Written in the late 1830s/early ’forties, there are, not surprisingly, allusions to the stage works Wagner was composing at this time. The second song, for the baritone, seems to be a dark seascape – we’re in the world of The Flying Dutchman.

The French part brings from Henze a different atmosphere, a different type of scoring which sounds, well, French. There’s some wonderful things here, which remind of Faure, Chausson (himself heavily influenced by Wagner) and, again, Berlioz – the third song could be from Nuits d’ete. That’s a winner for the baritone, but the mezzo has some pearls too, not least Extase, in which the voice appears to float like a cloud. If, wearing his French hat, Henze seems less quixotic with his scoring, that’s a theory blown-away when he uses a combo of piano, celesta and harp at the beginning of the third-to-last setting! This bringing-to-life of Wagner’s ’songs with piano’, a serious undertaking for Henze, is one that also betrays a sense of humour and affection. For all the songs’ diverse moods, there’s a real sense of culmination when the choir enters in the final number. Leonard Slatkin conducts the UK premiere.

To close is Weber, some of his piano pieces brilliantly transmuted and orchestrated by Paul Hindemith in the perhaps clumsily titled Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber, written for the New York Philharmonic in 1943. If Hindemith is sometimes regarded as a dry, formal composer he was anything but in the ’twenties – really quite racy! – and he threw away the textbook for this slant on Weber. Exuberant and vital, including some jazzy syncopation in the second movement’s spin on the chinoiserie of Weber’s overture to Turandot, this orchestral showpiece should close this intriguing concert in a riot of colour.

JS Bach/Stravinsky

Choral Variations on Vom Himmel Hoch


Richard Wagnersche Klavierlieder (UK premiere)


Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber

Stella Doufexis (mezzo-soprano), Thomas Mohr (baritone),

BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin

Sunday 11 March, Royal Festival Hall at 7.30

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