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HENZE Works for Two Guitars. "Minette: Canti e rimpianti amorosi" per 2 chitarre; Memorias de "El Cimarrón" for two guitarists (1995) and Drei Märchenbilder aus der Oper "Pollicino" (1980)   Jürgen Ruck and Elena Càsoli (guitars) MDG Gold. MDG 304 0881-2. (59' 56'')

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This disc is headed "Henze: Chamber Music Vol.1" which is an encouraging prospect as little of this great contemporary composer's chamber works are available on CD. Henze is one of the most interesting of today's artists whose writing, though unquestionably of our time, is rooted in the musical traditions which so many other recent composers have seen fit to ignore. It is this juxtaposition between the familiar and the unfamiliar which makes Henze's works so enjoyable as well as challenging. This juxtaposition is well demonstrated on this CD. The disc begins with "Minette", a realisation for two guitars of an earlier opera called "The English Cat" to words by Edward Dent. The story of the opera is retained by the use of five arias and two duets from the opera to make up the seven movements. The writing captures the pathos of the story and the cat-like wailing (particularly in the last movement) is both recognisably feline as well as moving. Though Henze does employ twelve-tone rows in his writing, there are enough genuine melodies here to satisfy the most ardent anti-modernist and I found the piece to be most enjoyable and emotionally involving (the excellent notes in the accompanying booklet set out Minette's tragic story).

Memorias de "El Cimarrón" is a rather tougher nut to crack, employing as it does vocal effects (humming, whistling and tongue-clicking) as well as the use of the guitars as percussion instruments. The very start of the work is disconcerting to those expecting a more straightforward piece for guitars. However, the work has tremendous atmosphere, humour (in the form of acidic parody in "Das Herrenhaus" and "Die Pfarrer") and melodic and rhythmic invention (particularly in the delightful movement "Die Frauen" which emulates Cuban dance music). Repeated hearings help to overcome any initial misgivings over the extraneous noises which soon reveal themselves to be essential to the mood and indeed the essence of the work. It is a tribute to the fine musicianship of the two guitarists that these vocal and percussive aspects of the piece never sound eccentric or precious but rather make a vital contribution to the overall effectiveness of the work.

The CD finishes with the most charming and simple music on the programme: the Drei Märchenbilder from the opera "Pollicino". The original opera was conceived for children and thus the composer employs even more genuine tunes than usual, creating a delightful set of three small pieces which sound of the 20th Century and yet hark back to earlier, less complicated times. They are instantly memorable and should perhaps have started the disc to give the listener unfamiliar with Henze's soundworld a more appropriate entry into it. For those unsure if this disc is for them, I would recommend starting with the exquisite "Drei Märchenbilder" and then proceeding to "Minette" before plunging into the deep end with the "El Cimarrón" pieces.

It is no coincidence that all three works on this CD were inspired by operas as a melodic and cantabile quality informs all the best of Henze's music. For listeners who respond to the music in this CD, I would recommend getting to know the nine symphonies, the operas and the ballet music of this most exciting of contemporary composers. His erudite and humane biography "Bohemian Fifths" (published by Faber) also makes for fascinating reading. For those listeners getting aural indigestion on the excesses of the never-ending stream of releases of late-Romantic orchestral colossi, this gem of jewelled miniatures could prove to be the perfect palette-refreshing antidote. The recording quality on all three pieces is ideal, the players captured in the most natural of acoustics. The two guitarists Jürgen Ruck and Elena Càsoli display exemplary musicianship and a love and understanding of the works they are playing which would be the envy of any composer. I look forward with keen anticipation to further releases in the Henze Chamber Music series on MDG.


Paul Conway


Paul Conway

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