Hans Werner Henze: Voices

Hans Werner Henze

London Sinfonietta conducted by Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 March, 2001
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

It is important that the current Henze retrospective includes representative work from the composer’s ’political phase’; more correctly, that period when his music was pervaded by the quality of commitment. Voices, his lengthy (94 minutes on this occasion) cycle of 22 songs is probably the most resourceful and certainly the most diverse of these works: central to Henze’s output not just on account of its social and political concerns, but also through the actual quality of much of its music.

Not all of the music, however, and in a cycle which is governed more by emotional conviction than by systematic ordering, one of the fascinating aspects is the interaction of songs drawing on widely differing traditions of text setting and musical usage. Much the most orthodox are those Brecht settings which continue the Weill-Eisler-Dessau lineage: sometimes too dutifully, as in ’All or none’ (No.3); elsewhere a little self-consciously, as in ’Thoughts of a showgirl as she strips’ (12); but in ’Legend of the origin of the book Tao Te Chin’ (11), with a subtle emotional detachment that enhances the tradition perfectly.

A further sub-grouping is that of poets then writing from a graphically non-establishment perspective: these have so far dated poorly, such as the sentiments of Cruz’s ’The Electric Cop’ (4), with its awkward use of sampled sources, or Randall’s ’Roses and Revolutions’ (19), whose uneasy mix of compassion and militancy is barely held in check by the formal coherence – rather than the musical distinction – of Henze’s treatment. Smith’s ’Screams’ (16) invites comparison with the more reckless of Yoko Ono’s freeform numbers, while Thomas’s ’The Worker’ (17) mines the same bluesy territory that Tippett inhabited with rather more conviction. The setting of Ho Chi Minh’s ’Prison Song’ (2) has dated better, though no one performing it today could hope to match the visceral delivery of Stomu Yamash’ta in the recording of the 1971 original.

Other settings fit recognisably into the forcefully atonal (perhaps post-tonal?) mould of Henze’s music from this period. Padilla’s ’Cuban poets do not sleep anymore’ (1) has the grinding dissonances familiar from The Raft of the Medusa, while De Sanctis’s ’Cain’ (7) has the light, ironic feel, shot through with poignancy, of the vaudeville La Cubana. Katsaros’s ’An End’ (21) makes dialectical play in the same, slightly supercilious manner of the Second Violin Concerto, its brevity the undoubted source of its wit. Heine might seem an unlikely bedfellow in this context, but much of his poetry is polemic of the most skilful kind, and ’Home Coming’ (9) invites artful treatment in the Lieder tradition that Henze has returned to on numerous occasions over the past two decades.

Two other poets feature prominently in the cycle. While Erich Fried’s socially-aware verse cannot always be conducive to musical treatment, Henze extracts real plangency from ’42 Schoolchildren’ (6), while the vicious ’A fair deal’ (14) looks forward to Edward Bond’s simmering subversion in the opera The English Cat. Hans Magnus Eizenberger remains even less known outside German-speaking countries, but the dense imagery of his free verse comes through strongly even in translation, and inspired two very different settings. ’The real knife’ (13) has an expressionism that Henze’s one-time mentor Karl Amadeus Hartmann would have appreciated, while ’Carnival of Flowers’ (22) concludes the cycle with images of reconciliation and non-aggression, in what remains one of Henze’s most candid and heartfelt utterances.

In an eleventh hour substitution, Fiona Kimm stood in for Jean Rigby and brought back vivid memories of her performances of the cycle a decade ago. Alive to its many-faceted vocal demands, and not afraid to enter into the spirit of the settings when the need arose, her total identification with even the more outré of Henze’s musical treatments was undeniable. Christopher Gillet made a less immediate impact, his vocal security not always matched by his projection of the texts’ fervency. Yet so many of his songs made musical sense almost in spite of themselves, vital if the cycle as a whole is to remain a revivable proposition in the future. Oliver Knussen conducted with sure belief in the panoply of responses making up Henze’s world view: appreciably different now than in 1973, perhaps, but whose underlying emotional immediacy makes Voices much more than the sum of its intermittently inspired parts.

  • The SBC’s “Voices – Henze at 75” series continues on Thursday 15th March with a Nash Ensemble concert including the Piano Quintet and Five Neapolitan Songs with Wolfgang Holzmair
  • Box Office: 020 7960 4201
  • Book Online: www.rfh.org.uk

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