Concert Review

HENZE  Symphony No 5, Ariosi etc. BBCSO/Knussen. RFH, Friday 18 February 2000


The second of the South Bank's 'Composer Portrait' concerts centred on Hans Werner Henze. In the most fascinating pre-concert talk I have heard in a long time, Henze (in conversation with Roger Wright, Controller of Radio Three) waxed lyrical on the many facets of his music and personality. He came across as the intriguing mix of Teutonic austerity and Mediterranean warmth and humour which so characterises his musical output.

The two works in the first half of the concert, the Fifth Symphony and Ariosi, reach back to 1962 and 1963 respectively. The very opening of the Fifth exemplified the qualities that Oliver Knussen brought to the entire concert ­ gestures were sharply-etched, accents cleanly attacked and textures sensitively delineated. Orchestral balance was consistently transparent throughout. Although the Symphony quotes from elsewhere in Henze's oeuvre (the first movement incorporates part of a song from Elegy for Young Lovers), it seems that the very musico-historical weight of the 'the Symphony' helps to concentrate Henze's compositional practices in a way not always found in his Music Theatre/Imaginary Theatre pieces. Knussen was as alive to the symphonic drive as he was to the lyricism of the song-like second movement, where the solo cadenzas for alto flute, violin and cor anglais were winningly delivered by Principals of the BBCSO.

Ariosi for soprano (here Carole Farley), violin (the beautifully full-toned Ernst Kovacic) and orchestra is an exquisutely realised setting of five poems by Tasso. Farley's voice is overly soft-grained for the tonal variety demanded by this music, however. Her propensity towards over-literal delivery led to a lack of the intensity and intimacy required,a short-coming only highlighted by Kovacic's musicality and Knussen's receptiveness o the lightly-scored accompaniment.

The BBC Singers under Stefan Parkman took centre stage for Orpheus Behind the Wire (1981-3), five settings of poetry by Edward Bond. Henze's command of choral writing was in evidence throughout ­ the BBC Singers captured the harmonium-like sonorities of the first setting, What was Hell like?, perfectly. The sopranos coped well with the strenuously huge demands of The point to be noted, as did the tenor Andrew Murgatroyd with the melismas of You who survived. The balance was carefully considered throughout and the diction consistently crystal-clear.

The Eighth Symphony represented the Henze of the 1990s. The work is a reaction to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, at times almost Imaginary Theatre. Whilst Knussen balanced the orchestra expertly in the first movement (which depicts Puck's journey), it was the second movement which impressed most. An occasionally-exploding rhythmic dance, sitting somewhere between Stravinsky's Sacrificial Dance and Circus Polka, Henze's sense of humour shone through, fittingly contrasting with the beautifully-scored, emotive last movement.

Happily, Henze's first six symphonies are available on a two-CD set, conducted by the composer (DG 449 861-2). Orpheus Behind the Wire is available on Chandos CHAN8963, conducted by Parkman (this time with the Danish National Radio Choir). Those beguiled by Henze's delicate side are recommended to try the Rimbaud setting Being Beauteous (DG 449 869-2).


Colin Clarke

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