Hans Werner Henze
Drei Lieder über den Schnee
Five Neapolitan Songs
Sarah Leonard (soprano)
Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone)
Nash Ensemble conducted by Diego Masson
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 22 March, 2001
Venue: Purcell Room, London
In a short but well-planned concert, the Nash Ensemble provided a window onto Henze’s chamber and vocal music. There could not be a better piece to illustrate the composer’s rapprochement with the legacy of late-Romanticism than Drei Lieder über den Schnee (1989), brief but intensely expressive verses by Henze’s latter-day librettist Hans-Ulrich Treichel. Ravishingly sung by Wolfgang Holzmair and Sarah Leonard, they formed a rapt contrast with the abstract, elliptical expression of Fünf Nachtstücke (1990). These Webernian miniatures, the unlikely offshoot of a winter holiday in the Caribbean, combined deftness and pungency in this account from Jacqueline Shave and Ian Brown.
Ensemble chamber music features relatively seldom in Henze’s output, though the three string quartets written in the aftermath of the mid-1970s socio-political extravaganza We Come to the River demonstrate an immersion in the domain of abstract music that the Piano Quintet (1991) continues with a vengeance. This tautly-argued work, its three movements lasting little more than 20 minutes, had previously seemed caught between the dictates of formal compression and emotional expression. The Nash’s finely-honed reading largely swept away such doubts, giving the work a tensile vigour which, spilling over from the thematic density of the opening Con ferocia, underlies the intermittent agitation of the central Adagio, through to the inexorable momentum of the closing Litania. The undoubted highlight of the evening.
The second half opened with the solo cello Capriccio (1981), a single-movement span of great motivic resource, stemming as it does from an initial 70th birthday tribute to Paul Sacher, and played with understated feeling by Paul Watkins. Finally to the Five Neapolitan Songs (1956), a product of Henze’s Italian ’high summer’, drawing a perspective at once inscrutable yet personal from the anonymous 17th-century texts. The marrying of Mahlerian subjectivity with Stravinskian concreteness shows clearly just how successfully the 30-year-old composer had fused opposing aesthetics – as he had, surely, the contrasting sides of his character. Jobst Liebrecht’s chamber reduction lacked the evocative quality of the thoughtfully-constituted original, though Holzmair proved to be a worthy successor to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in his projection of expressive subtleties, and quite likely surpasses him in tonal flexibility; amply conveying that sensuous aura Henze later seemed intent on eliminating from his music, only for it to return transformed.