Hans Werner Henze on CD

0 of 5 stars

Drei sinfonische etuden
Quattro poemi
Nachtstucke und arien*
La selva incantata – aria und rondo

Michaela Kaune (soprano)*
North German Radio Symphony Orchestra, Hamburg conducted by Peter Ruzicka

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: June 2001
CD No: WERGO WER 6637 2

The output of Hans Werner Henze is so vast (he is currently working on his 29th stage work) that, well represented though he is in CD catalogues, there are still many works awaiting a first recording. This excellent CD presents a group of works that flow out of the enchanted sound-world Henze created for his second full-scale opera, King Stag, written in the mid-1950s. All four works are appearing for the first time on CD and, as far as I am aware, only Nachtstucke und arien has been available previously, on vinyl, as an import from Germany.

In King Stag, Henze infused the brittle neo-classicism and dry serialism of his earliest two compositional periods with a flood of Italianate warmth and lyricism, a development he described as a northern polyphonic temperament projected into the ariosi south, which mirrored his self-imposed exile from Germany to Italy. Apart from the ’aria and rondo’, La selva incantata, which is a potpourri from the opera, the closest work here to King Stag is Quattro poemi, which incorporates quotations from the opera. The last two sections of this four-movement work form a powerful arc in writing that combines a vein of poisoned lyricism with motoric ostinati and rustic colourings in a manner familiar from the opera. Henze’s account in the liner notes of the disastrous first performance of Quattro poemi, under Stokowski (who underestimated the music’s technical difficulty), reminds that the public’s resistance to much of the music from the 50s and 60s may have been in part due to the inadequacies of early executants. In a performance like the present one, the music positively sings. The literary reference in the title is reflected in music whose sounds seem to be the very onomatopoeia of feeling and meaning.

Drei sinfonische etuden speaks a language closer to the Darmstadt serialism of the day, but each is permeated with a sense of vocal line. This is heard from the outset where a slow incantation emerges from a haze of soft percussion (in a manner similar to the opening of Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces, Op.6). The slowly evolving ’hauptstimme’ (Schoenberg’s name for the most important line in polyphony) continues throughout the movement threaded between shifting orchestral colours built from those notes of the chromatic scale that are missing from the central melody. The result is music that keeps all twelve pitches in play without sounding (in the revised version of 1964 at any rate) like it is being controlled with serial rigour. The feel of a ’slow processional’ oddly anticipates Harrison Birtwistle’s The Triumph of Time, whereas the second movement is highly reminiscent of the contemporaneous work of Henze’s erstwhile colleague Luigi Nono in its seamless fusion of the lyric and the dramatic. In the final movement, Henze’s vision of “wild, unleashed, free orchestral sound” is fully realised, eventually evaporating into the haze of the work’s beginning. The ’wildness’ is vividly caught in this performance.

Nachtstucke und arien’ is apparently Henze’s most performed work and one can readily hear why. The work instantly throws the listener into a world of highly-charged eroticism, apocalyptic beauty and magical inventiveness. Three purely orchestral movements enfold two settings of poems by Henze’s close friend and collaborator Ingeborg Bachmann (regrettably not translated in the CD booklet). These settings pit an ecstatic vocal line (brilliantly sung here by Michaela Kaune) against eruptive brass fanfares and sudden, entranced, pockets of solo string writing, a fusion clinched in the final movement. In the second orchestral nachtstuck, nagging note repetitions gradually turn into a fandango rhythm, a Spanish influence which Henze attributes to the culture of Naples where he was living and which reached its apotheosis many years later with the orchestral Fandango (after Soler) and the Six Boleros (from the opera Venus and Adonis). Throughout the work, fragments of distorted popular musics (the neologisms that caused Boulez, Nono and Stockhausen to walk out of the premiere) seem to represent an Arcadian world that is no longer attainable.

Finally, La selva incantata gives us a tantalising glimpse into the deep forests of King Stag. As with Henze’s Fourth Symphony, La selva incantata weaves together several passages from the opera, moving from ravishing aria to galumphing Stravinskian dance. Dare we expect that one day there will be a recording of the complete opera? Few unrecorded operas deserve it more.

The playing of the NDR Symphony Orchestra under the inspiring direction of composer-conductor (and soon to be artistic director of the Salzburg Festival) Peter Ruzicka is committed throughout, if a little unrefined in places. The sound quality is good but has a tendency to become garish in climaxes. To anyone unfamiliar with Henze’s music, this disc is a perfect introduction to his uniquely intoxicating soundworld; committed Henzians will delight in having music new to CD in the composer’s 75th-birthday year.

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