Voices – Henze at 75

Bach arr. Stravinsky
Variations on Vom Himmel Hoch
Hans Werner Henze
Richard Wagnersche Klavierlieder (UK première)
Symphonic Metamorphoses on themes by Carl Maria von Weber

Stella Doufexis (mezzo-soprano)
Thomas Mohr (baritone)

BBC Singers & Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 11 March, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

As part of the South Bank’s “Voices – Henze at 75”, the BBC Symphony Orchestra made a relatively early return to what was (until last May) its winter-season home, the Royal Festival Hall: fittingly, given the pivotal position the orchestra has had in its 70-year history for the championing of contemporary music. Last year, aficionados will remember, the Orchestra in its three-concert Composer Profile series included Henze alongside concerts devoted to Stockhausen and Berio. There it was an all-Henze concert; this year – given the wider scope of the festival – it was more ’Henze in context’.

The wonder of it was that, even with a programme which concentrated on 20th-century composers’ re-workings of earlier music, the Royal Festival Hall was so little attended. Once again it was the absentees’ loss, not those who – small in number though they were – came to support the orchestra, or to hear a Henze UK première. It was an ingeniously prepared programme, which teased out connections of composers harking back to earlier works. Stravinsky’s homage to Bach, in a curious orchestration which made the violas star of the string section (only joined by double basses), was written to be a fitting partner to his Canticum Sacrum and is as much Stravinsky – in his neo-baroque style – as Bach. The BBC Singers joined the wind and reduced strings for a clear, incisive performance (the original idea was for it to be premièred at St Mark’s, Venice).

After Henze’s orchestration of seventeen early Wagner songs, the concert closed with what I have always regarded as an audience-winning orchestral show-stopper, Hindemith’s Weber Metamorphoses, written in 1943 – using material that he had originally produced for a discarded ballet for Massine. Certainly Slatkin’s performance with his BBC forces played it for all it was worth, contrasting the percussion battering (second movement) and the brass fanfares that occur throughout with the much more subtle and lyrical music that can be found within. Even though it is regarded as Hindemith’s most popular piece, it should be programmed more often, but if audiences cannot be persuaded to pay the princely sum of £11 for a BBC concert to hear it, there seems little hope that the other (independent) London orchestras will consider doing it.

Centre-place was Henze’s orchestration of the early Wagner songs, which were originally written with piano accompaniment. Richard Wagnersche Klavierlieder was first performed by its commissioners, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, on 28 August 1999 under Semyon Bychkov; at this BBC Symphony Orchestra concert it received its UK première.

Split almost equally by the interval, which gave the concert an unusual but undeniably satisfactory shape, the songs come from two main sources. There are seven songs with texts taken from Goethe’s Faust, which are prefaced by two occasional songs, also in German, and the set ends with eight French songs, with texts by various authors. Henze has orchestrated them with his usual exact ear for instrumental timbre and, while in many you may be hard-pressed to hear a late 20th-century voice in the sound-mix, there are some that engagingly remind the listener that this is a contemporary ’recomposition’ – most notably the percussion- and wind-accompanied ’Tout n’est qu’images fugitives . . .’ (the sixth of the French songs). Some include chorus, but are mainly set for either of the soloists (occasionally both). These songs show a very different side of Wagner.

Setting other people’s texts (as opposed to his own operatic ones), Wagner could be concise, witty and mercurial – descriptions very difficult to append to any of his main compositions. The Goethe texts (perhaps best known, simply because of their appropriation by various other composers, notably Berlioz, but also Schubert and Schumann) offered a light touch where needed (Brander’s ’song of the rat’, Mephistopheles’s ’song of the flea’) and rustic stridency (’Peasants under the linden tree’). Also touching, unforced poignancy in ’Gretchen at the spinning wheel’.

The French songs are intriguing because of Wagner’s setting of another language, and – although he was unable to make his mark in Paris at this early stage in his career (1838 to 1840) – we can only wonder what track he might have taken if he had been successful with these settings.

Perhaps we would have been spared the painful length of his major operas and the cod-mythology and cod-psychology that permeates and unbalances all his libretti except Die Meistersinger (composers shouldn’t write their own librettos!) – but that is another subject entirely.

What Henze’s reclamation has done is to provide performers and audiences with a major ’new’ work, delightfully approachable and, without doubt, a real winner. Doufexis and Mohr obviously enjoyed themselves: their and Slatkin’s enthusiasm was infectious and it would be good to think that a repeat performance may be in the planning for the Proms or – even better – that BBC Music Magazine will release this performance as a future cover disc in honour of Henze who was in attendance at the performance.

Read Leonard Slatkin’s preview of this concert here

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