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