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Aldeburgh Festival (5) : Webern, Berg, Schoenberg, Henze Ian Bostridge, (tenor), Craig Ogden (guitar), Stephen Richardson (narrator) Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Thomas Adès (conductor) The Maltings, Snape, 19.6.06 (AO)


Webern’s Sechs Stücke are gem-like miniatures.  The third piece is only 190 bars long, so quiet that it barely rises above piano.  It was originally scored for large orchestra, which intensified the tension between large forces and spare instrumentation.  Tonight, we heard the transcription Webern made much later for 13 players. It’s more practical to perform, and more conventional, but the inherent balance is more conventional. Webern tries to re create the frisson in different ways, such as getting the percussionists to play literally inside the piano, so the sounds echo eerily as if a large band were being heard from afar.  In the original, this is a massively powerful section, particularly after the silence of its miniature predecessor.  Here, it’s a storm in the hull of a piano. 

Thomas Adès is a wonderful pianist, much more incisive than when he is conducting.  Thus the Adagio from Berg’s Chamber Concerto, for violin, clarinet and piano came over well, though the intervals were a little too long and the general effect muted.  In Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon, which followed, the instrumentalists rose to the occasion.   They captured the tense, sardonic violence of the composer’s commentary on Byron’s poem against tyranny and the corruption of absolute power.  It’s intensely emotional, and needs to be performed with commitment.  Because its Sprechgesang notation is less precise and strict, it means that the narrator has more scope for an equally personal interpretation.  It’s even more important to get a balance between the deliberate theatricality of the verse, and the strong undercurrent of mockery and protest.  Sprechgesang has little to do with the composer’s poor command of English.  Its distortions of Sprechgesang are deliberate, designed to deconstruct form,  and have a musical logic behind them.  Unlike Pierrot Lunaire, where Sprechgesang evokes a moody dream like state, in the Ode to Napoleon it ideally acts as a counterpoint to the grandiose imagery.   Stephen Richardson may be an impressive narrator, but he’s less effective in bringing out the musical undertones.   The bizarre ups and downs that distort the syntax are meant to be semi “sung” for a valid musical and interpretative reason.  This piece needs a performer with an innate sense of musical line, to bring out its deeper levels.

Juxtaposing the Ode with Henze’s Kammermusik is another brilliant example of intelligent, musically sensitive programme making.  Hölderlin fascinates modern composers because he seems to glimpse otherworldly possibilities.  He may have died 200 years ago, but his visionary inspirations are utterly in accord with the ideas behind so much new music.  Henze doesn’t use Sprechgesang, but requires an extremely musically intuitive singer, with interpretive skills to match.  When Henze first heard a very young Bostridge many years ago, at Aldeburgh, he said he’d found his muse, both in terms of vocal flexibility and emotional imagination  Like Schoenberg, Henze writes distortion into his score, to express  Hölderlin’s essentially fractured dreams.  As in the Ode, the voice isn’t about “good German” or “good English” any more than Sprechgesang is meant to be.  Musical values dominate : if anything, the voice should remind us of the poet, playing and singing to the moon in his isolated tower. 

Henze loves the gentle, human sound of the guitar as much as he loves the exotic wind instrument quality of Bostridge’s voice : the combination is superb.   The horn part is also particularly well written, for it captures the feeling of distant hunting horns, music heard from a distance – Hölderlin’s visions were unreal and he lived in isolation.  When, in the sixth section, the poet speaks of his heart, the music throbs with an eerie heartbeat. Certain words, like “Mensch” and “Schönheit” were for the poet value added with symbolism, and Henze set them carefully.  At times, Bostridge brings as many as five tones into a single word at infinitely colouring it with nuance, as the poet would have felt it.  Henze captures the strange rhythmic disjunction that marks Hölderlin’s ecstatic prose. In the striking 12th section, the word “Dioskuren” leaps out suddenly : the Dioskuren were twin stars that lit up the night sky and helped sailors navigate, just as their image gave Hölderlin hope.   Kammermusik is a masterpiece that is relatively obscure because it is such a challenge to perform properly.  It would be a fitting tribute for Henze’s 80th birthday, which occurs this year, if Bostridge were to make a recording – with his insight into the poet and composer, it would be definitive.


Anne Ozorio




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)