Hans Werner Henze: Voices – 29th March (Postscript)

Hans Werner Henze
Symphony No.5
Fraternite (UK premiere)
Piano Concerto No.3
Symphony No.5

Yefim Bronfman (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 29 March, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Hans Werner Henze’s Fifth Symphony is particularly intriguing in its concentration of form, concise argument and individual orchestration. Perhaps writing it for the New York Philharmonic and Stravinsky-devotee Leonard Bernstein reminded Henze that Stravinsky’s Symphony in three movements was composed for that Orchestra. Certainly Henze’s declared admiration for Stravinsky is evident in No.5’s rhythmic and instrumental clarity, and in the motoric propulsion that informs the outer sections. Like Stravinsky’s masterwork, Henze 5 is in three movements and lasts about 20 minutes.

Then there’s Henze’s scoring. The strings are as normal … the woodwind though is alto flute, piccolo and two each of flutes, oboes and cor anglais (there are no clarinets or bassoons). Horns, trumpets and trombones are (unusually) four per instrument; no tuba required. Henze exchanges a twentieth-century inventory of percussion-colour for a ripieno of two sets of timpani, two pianos and two harps. This individual display of specific sound and instrument-numbers plays its part in making Henze’s symphony so particular. The slow movement, with solos for alto flute, viola and cor anglais is a sensuous oasis amidst The Rite of Spring-like attack before and aft; throughout, Henze’s imaginative instrumentation creates a timbral resonance that uncannily suggests the spirit of Rome, which Henze alludes inspired his creation.

Dohnanyi’s characteristic use of antiphonal violins clarified these sections’ dialogue (especially their interplay near the start of the finale); not that there is a dominance of such exchange – it’s not an arrangement pre-determined by Bernstein, nor what the composer has on his DG recording. An old-fashioned seating arrangement maybe, but one that nevertheless still proved invaluable for music written at a distance from such things. Similarly, Dohnanyi’s doubling of the woodwind to four-to-a-part in Beethoven 5 (but not in the concerto) suggested, in the rehearsal I attended, a dynamic force rather more fulsome than Henze’s ’modern’ use of orchestral panoply!

If the Fifth displays a debt to Stravinsky, then Fraternite finds Henze in Mahler-mode, something specifically intimated by his casting of its song-invention for strings and harp (i.e. Mahler 5’s Adagietto). Henze makes dramatic use of introducing tension and foreboding to his millennial-inspired piece: a peering into the new century with some trepidation. In its open-ended form, Fraternite suggests itself as a beautiful, if harshly contrasted, counterpart to the last movement of Henze’s great Seventh Symphony. To this Mahlerian basis, Henze employs a rich harmonic language worthy of Berg and a complex, but always lucid, use of a (conventional) large orchestra. Fraternite’s troubled lyricism is distinctive, universal and contemporary.

Read Mike Langhorne’s review of this concert

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