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Hans Werner HENZE (b.1926)
Sechs Gesänge Aus Dem Arabischen (Six Songs from the Arabian)
Three Auden Songs

Ian Bostridge, tenor and Julius Drake, piano
EMI Classics 7243 5 57112 2 9 DDD [56:52]
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There have been many superlatives applied to the vocal artistry of Ian Bostridge in recent years. Indeed, the Six Songs from the Arabian, here receiving its world premiere recording, was written by Henze as his own admiring response to hearing Bostridge for the first time in 1996. That particular performance was Bostridge's Aldeburgh Festival debut recital and included the Three Auden Songs also recorded here. I have to say that whilst there are other recordings by Bostridge which I hold in high esteem (his recording of Vaughan Williams' On Wenlock Edge is wonderfully evocative), I find his singing here little short of spellbinding. The depth of tone and range of his voice are exceptional, the diction crystal clear and the phrasing exquisite.

Henze does of course possess one of the finest operatic pedigrees of any contemporary composer, a fact that manifests itself clearly by way of the natural ease with which he deals with his texts. With the exception of a short passage from Goethe's Die erste Walpurgisnacht in the first song, and the final song which is a translation by Friedrich Rückert of a poem by Hafiz, Henze wrote his own words. He tells in the booklet notes how he was able to manipulate his words as he composed to assist "the musical argument" although it is to his credit that this does not appear to have been to the detriment of his literary inspiration. The songs tell the story of Selim and Fatuma, a couple who reside on the East Coast of Africa and who are known personally to the composer. Whilst founded on real life situations the words are heavily imbued with fantastic imagery, sea monsters, witches and ghosts, although there are also moments of tenderness, as in the final love song, Paradise. Henze displays a true sense of dramatic invention in the first two songs as the intrepid sailor Selim wrestles with storms and high seas. Bostridge takes full advantage, delivering intense, turbulent performances, full of atmosphere. Particular note should also be made of Julius Drake's magnificent accompaniment. Henze writes for Bostridge and Drake very much as a duo and Drake delivers the highly demanding piano part with great panache and, later on in the work, sensitivity. The third song, A Sunrise, is again laden with atmosphere, although it is the final two songs, Fatuma's Lament and Paradise, which have haunted this particular listener since first hearing them, truly beautiful settings poignantly sung by Bostridge. This is a substantial work, around forty five minutes in total, yet both Henze and the two performers have the rare gift of holding your attention for every second of the journey.

The Three Auden Songs, completed shortly after Henze finished work on his opera, The English Cat, display distant echoes of the latter, whilst also demonstrating a remarkable understanding of Auden's poetry. Not surprising perhaps as Henze had worked closely with Auden as a librettist and recalls the poet analysing the poem which forms the first song, In Memoriam L.K.A. 1950-1952 (an elegy for Auden's cat, Lucina). The shadowy yet elegant waltz like rhythms of the first song give way to a portrait of the poet Rimbaud in the second song, whilst the third is a delicate and extremely moving love song, sung once again with wonderful feeling by Bostridge.

Henze's music is never easy intellectually but this is a hugely rewarding disc, which positively cries out for repeated listening. The music is outstanding as are the performances and I am already certain that this will remain one of my discs of 2001.

Christopher Thomas

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