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.
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.
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!