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Hans Werner HENZE (b.1926)
Violin Concerto No.1 (1946) [26:57]
Violin Concerto No.3 (1997) [33:24]
Fünf Nachtstücke (1990) [9:09]
Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin)
Aaron Shorr (piano - Nachtstücke)
Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra/Christopher Lyndon-Gee
rec. 16-17 September 2004 (Concerto No.1), 14-15 September (Concerto No.3), Große Sendesaal, Saarbrücken, Germany. Fünf Nachtstücke rec. 12 December 2004, Potton Hall, Suffolk.
NAXOS 8.557738 [69:30]

 

It must have been 1986 when, believe it or not, I had lunch with Hans Werner Henze. A student at the RAM, I was member of the last of a sequence of scruffy bunches of composition students to take masterclasses with the great man at a mews flat just over the road from Harrod’s. The great man regularly took breaks to stand and partake of the fresh air wafting in from an open pair of French windows. It turned out that he and some friends had enjoyed some incredible quantity of wine the evening before, and so it wasn’t long before – much to my delight – we were joining the great man in a ‘hair of the dog’ gin and tonic before, as the last group of the day, being invited to stay for lunch. With our collectively lamentable ignorance I’m afraid this unforgettable day is forever stamped with an indelible vacuity of insightful anecdote. I seem to remember my student colleagues were somewhat dismissive of my quasi-minimal attempts of the time, but the great man was interested and sympathetic - I had trouble getting performances even then - and as a result he can do no wrong for this reviewer.

Fortunately for me the great man has become even greater, and as the new century progresses, it is increasingly easier to measure Henze’s stature as a composer for our times. Having experienced the nightmare of war as a youth he matured swiftly, and the first Violin Concerto sounds as fresh and convincing now as it must have sounded modern and avant-garde in its day. Henze admits to having had great difficulties with the work, but every aspect of it is impressively satisfying as a whole: the orchestration is varied and colourful, the solo violin part idiomatic and laden with emotionally charged meaning. This is no superficially virtuoso concerto, but a deeply personal statement on the ugliness of war and the triumph of sensitivity and the human spirit conveyed by some beautiful lines in the solo violin.

Peter Sheppard Skærved has a long association with Henze’s work, and his playing is completely at home in all of the pieces on this disc. His technical mastery and deep understanding of the composer’s world transmit a sense of confidence - the Dutch word ‘vanzelfsprekend’ sums this up - which should remove many difficulties for the listener. To be sure, this music will not be everybody’s cup of tea, but educating the ear to accept the language of another can be a joyous experience, and recordings such as this provide an ideal opportunity for widening one’s horizons.

The third Violin Concerto, written fifty years after the first, sits easily with its youthful partner on this disc. Henze’s musical language has always maintained an uncompromising individuality, and this is apparent in both works. The third concerto does however bristle with allusions to composers on whose shoulders Henze is standing – continuing an ancient and traditional musical form in a completely modern context. Alban Berg is one of the most recognisable references. I also sense a fleeting relationship with Tippett or Britten at some moments, and momentary glimpses, like the flash of a camera, reveal Beethoven, Wagner, Corelli and even Bach as Henze’s playmates in corners of this fascinating work.

The concerto has Thomas Mann’s epic Dr. Faustus as its starting point, and each movement refers to in some way to the imaginary violin concerto of Adrian Leverkühn which appears, described in detail in the novel. Henze makes no attempt to follow the analysis of the piece as it appears in the book, but each movement has a title which clearly alludes to characters in the story. Henze’s engagement with German literature is an ongoing theme in his work, and the result here is a magnificently romantic monument to the passions and tragedies which occupied those true giants of the arts – Goethe, Mann, Beethoven, Mahler. The symphonic orchestra is enriched with tuned percussion, piano, celesta, harp – and Henze is fully awake to the associations which each instrument conjures.

The ‘filler’ is a set of ‘Five Night Pieces,’ written especially for Peter Sheppard Skærved and Aaron Shorr. Kept awake by rowdy locals at a Caribbean holiday location, Henze ended up working on these ‘Notturni’ as a way to use those hours of insomnia productively. These are spare or concise, atmospheric or persuasively penetrating creations, with an almost Webernesque sense of serialism in places. Henze slyly refers to the violinist’s name in two movements titled Hirtenlieder or Shepherd’s song, but these pieces are by no means bagatelle miniatures.

Naxos once again ticks all of the boxes with this release. Performances and recordings are top notch, and Naxos has something of a coup with both dedicatees of the Fünf Nachtstücke on board. The Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra under Christopher Lyndon-Gee is committed and expert, and I can think of no complaints with any aspect of this production. Violin concertos are an attractive proposition, and while listeners shouldn’t expect the easy ride of a Samuel Barber or transparent filigree of a Dutilleux, they can count on having some seriously emotional meat on the bones of this traditional form. G&Ts all round!

Dominy Clements

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