Henze Violin Concertos

0 of 5 stars

Concertos for Violin and Orchestra – Nos.1, 2 & 3

Torsten Janicke (violin)

Ulf Dirk Mädler (baritone)

Magdeburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Christian Ehwald

Recorded in April and July 2003 in Theater Magdeburg

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: March 2006
MDG 601 1242-2
[2 CDs]
Duration: 85 minutes

Although it is rash to make generalisations about an artist as protean and prolific as Hans Werner Henze (born 1926), it is possible to divide his output into four periods.

Until the early 1950s, Henze was engaged in a process of assimilation of influences and distillation of a personal voice, which took him from a type of brooding Teutonic neo-classicism heavily indebted to Hindemith and Fortner to a brief and ultimately arid flirtation with serial methods. Between the mid-50s and the mid-60s, roughly book-ended by the operatic masterpieces “King Stag” and “The Bassarids”, came the flood of sun-drenched Italianate lyricism which brought Henze his fame and fortune. Turning his back on at least the latter, the committed Marxist of the next ten years or so aggressively suppressed that lyrical impulse to produce an art that radically engaged with its times and brought a wild and experimental element into his music (one that the composer was to tone down in many a subsequent revision of the works of this period). Since the late 1970s, Henze has sought tirelessly to locate the meeting point between the cantabile horizontal and the contrapuntal vertical that he hears not only in his beloved Bach but also the Stravinsky of Apollon musagète and Orpheus.

The three violin concertos drop a plumb-line down Henze’s vast output and this splendid release from MDG enables us to trace the development of the composer most clearly. The First Concerto dates from 1948 and represents the summation of his early compositional concerns. A twelve-note row is proposed at the outset by the soloist but it is developed with anything but serial rigour. Triadic references abound and the whole work fluctuates, quite abruptly in parts, between neo-classical chatter and a warm, Bergian atonality. The outer movements are packed with drama and fantasy, the exotic coloration of the celesta adding a touch of moonlit forest from time to time. The two inner movements comprise a brief moto perpetuo and a suavely expressive slow movement, one of the earliest examples of Henze’s ability to spin an atonal melodic line in quasi-tonal fashion. The stylistic influences are worn close to the surface of the music, for example Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, both works in wide circulation in the late 1940s (and there is also an uncanny premonition of Tippett in the close harmony of the horns at the beginning of the slow movement).

Concerto No.1 is undoubtedly one of the most successful works of Henze’s early period. Henze’s own recording, with Wolfgang Schneiderhan, is still available on DG (449 865-2) and remains serviceable despite the slightly sepia-tinted sound (many years ago there was also another recording on, if I recall correctly, the Vox label). The present performance, is warm and supple and makes a convincing case for the work. Torsten Janicke clearly believes in the work and supplies passionate lyricism and cutting vehemence in equal measure.

The Second Concerto, “for solo violinist, recorded tape, bass-baritone and 33 instrumentalists and using Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s poem Hommage à Gödel” was written in 1971 and thus lies at the centre of Henze’s “wild and woolly” phase (not a pejorative term in my book!). It is in fact one of the most bizarre and enigmatic products of that period. It partakes to some extent of music-theatre, as do many of Henze’s instrumental works of this period and sets a poem by Enzensberger exploring obliquely the theorem of the mathematician Kurt Gödel which posits that “Within any sufficiently complex mathematical system there are propositions that cannot be proved or disproved on the basis of the axioms of that system, unless the system itself is not rigidly logical.”

The concerto thus becomes a kind of discourse on relativism using the fantasist Baron Münchhausen as its central image. The poem is not set instrumentally (as for example in the Ode to the West Wind for cello and orchestra) but rather, in its original guise, by a combination of the soloist speaking, distorted voice on tape and a ‘man in the audience’. The composer’s recording of the work (Decca 430 347-2, probably deleted) presents it thus but over time the composer has come to prefer a buffo baritone singer. The present recording certainly has one of those in Ulf Dirk Mädler, a Figaro and Papageno of note, whose beautifully modulated timbre adds greatly to the impact of the work in this version.

Where Concerto No.1 traded in stylistic influence, the Second deals in stylistic allusion and quotation – Dowland, Lisztian ‘stormy passages’ on the piano, ragtime, and Ländler all flash by at various points. There are also some intentionally lo-fi electronics, here sounding rather healthier than in the composer’s recording. It’s a disquieting but endlessly fascinating piece. The Decca recording benefited from the committed efforts of the late Brenton Langbein, an early advocate of the work and the collective virtuosity of the London Sinfonietta. I hope I do no disservice to the Magdeburg Philharmonic if I do not put this ensemble quite in that class and, overall, the iconoclast in me prefers the earlier version which gives free rein to the parody elements (compare the string vibrato in the opening of the final section for instance). That said, the sensibilist in me acknowledges that the new recording presents a more viable case for the future of the work. What is not in doubt is that Janicke gives a sensational account of the solo part, sounding like a kind of deranged atonal Paganini.

Thomas Mann’s novel “Doktor Faustus”, with its central figure the Schoenberg-like composer Leverkühn, contains within it the seeds of a violin concerto which it took Henze to realise in his Third Concerto (1997, revised in 2002 with an expansion of the solo part). The three movements each focus on a key character from the Mann. The first movement ‘Esmeralda’ is a highly charged erotic vision with Henze’s soundworld at its most tactile. The next concerns ‘The Child Echo’, who in the novel dies of meningitis, and is built out of contrasting blocks of innocent song and intense threnody which at the close signifies Leverkühn’s grief. The finale, ‘Rudi S.’, features Mann’s violinist Schwerdtfeger and is perhaps intended as Leverkühn’s concerto, a luminously tender cantilena and a cadenza imbued with the spirit of Bach.

Janicke and Christian Ehwald are completely inside this music, Henze’s teeming reverie is perfectly captured. I would not hold the Third Concerto as being amongst the very best of Henze’s work but even second division Henze is required listening!

The recorded sound is open and natural, tending to the garish in loud passages. MDG is to be congratulated on this enterprising release and will I hope explore other areas of Henze’s output not yet recorded and not least a number of recent orchestral works.

Finally, has Henze ever written a bar that sounded less like Henze than the chord progression from 7’07” in the first movement in the First Concerto?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content