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Hans Werner HENZE (b.1930)
Lucy Escott Variations (1963) [9:21]
Varationen für Klavier op.13 (1948) [11:35]
Une petite phrase (1964) [2:45]
Präludien zu «Tristan» (2003) [14:42]
Cherubino (1980-81) [9:52]
Toccata mistica (1994) [5:38]
Sonatina 1947 (1947) [9:06]
Sonata per pianoforte (1959) [16:03]
Jan Philip Schulze (piano)
rec. November 10-12 2005, Studio 2, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich
COL LEGNO WWE 20250 [79:44]

Col Legno has recently undergone something of a transformation, and I must say I find their new look very distinguished. This comprehensive survey of the piano music by one of Europe’s foremost composers is especially to be welcomed in that it contains world premiere recordings of the Präludien zu «Tristan», Toccata mistica and Henze’s early Sonatina 1947.

Hans Werner Henze has never been a concert pianist, but always works with the piano when composing: "Composing without a piano nearby is like a hotel room without a toilet, if you know what I mean" was once his dry way of summing up this relationship. Anecdote also plays a part in the performance of these pieces, as Henze and the pianist Jan Philip Schulze until fairly recently appeared on stage together, the composer reading from his autobiography, while the pianist provided musical intermezzi.

Henze is of course better known for his larger scale works, symphonies, concerti, theatrical pieces and opera. The general impression from this programme is in fact of the piano used as a relatively introvert means of expression. There are plenty of moments of impact and drama, but they tend to have a quicksilver character – interrupting a flow of lyrical expressiveness, punctuating, or throwing in serious stridence or possibly cynical stride-piano.

Working through chronologically, the Sonatina 1947 has the sense of a composer flexing themselves beyond the established conventions of Hindemith and the like, exploring the relationships between a Straussian waltz, gruff Beethovenian block chords and the quirky jazz touch adopted by pre-war Parisian Stravinsky. The second movement has an almost pastoral lyricism which extends into the final movement, actually called Pastorale, presaging the composer’s interest in the unity contained in variation forms. The Variations Op.13 illustrate this well, but sometimes in an almost entirely different idiom. The abstract nature of the later Sonata is almost hinted at in some of the angularity of the melodic lines and counterpoint – the gentler variations sketching more tender lines while never losing grip of the intellectual rigour of the whole.

The Sonata per pianoforte of 1959 has, as its title would suggest, a grander scale in every way when compared with the Sonatina. Still quite compact at around 16 minutes, it was written at the time his first operas were founding his European reputation, and while conflict with elements of Darmstadt and the avant-garde where also ongoing. Drawing to a certain extent on classical models and abstraction, Henze might well have been taking a break from all that theatre work. The lyricism is quite austere, and the lines and harmonies, if not strictly serial, certainly take on the restlessness of atonality.

The Lucy Escott Variations are based on the Bellini aria Come a me sereno from La sonnambula. The juxtaposition of this serene melody and Henze’s deft way of dismantling and disorientating the music make this one of the most interesting pieces on the disc for me – I say ‘disorientating the music’ rather than ‘the listener’, as the logic of his handling and development of the material is a journey in which to revel, rather than one of regret at the distances one travels from the original. The Cherubino miniatures are also variations of a kind, but with almost a 20 year gap the change in character with the music is also clear. Henze’s language matures to include a kind of romanticism which allows for a certain amount of the semantics of pianism, and in the final part a quite literal ‘Cherubino goes to war’ complete with the rattling of spears and tearful farewells.

The later works have an attractive sense of harmonic resolution. Une petite phrase has a kind of melodic nostalgia which even allows for a certain amount of wit – the composer poking himself with a blunt left-hand-held stick for his own sentimentality. Toccata mistica is described in the booklet notes as nature piece, illustrating the movement of the sea and its turbulent moods, ‘the concert grand as a raft on the sea and as the power of the sea.’

The Preludes for Tristan make up the most substantial piece on this disc, and emotionally the furthest reaching. The fingerprint of Wagner is of course an important unifying force, a deeply ingrained and spectral presence whose 19th century avant-garde unites with Henze’s contemporary chromaticism, linking it to an unalterable past, but a malleable tradition. A strange stride bass appears, serialism and sleaze, intellectual crystals of creativity and the grim gobs of ghoulish perversity which remain in our imaginations after the images of death and despair have left our television screens. We’re left with more questions than answers, but an urge to keep on asking.

As with so many of Col legno’s contemporary releases, you may not find this to be easy listening, but in the right frame of mind there are worlds to be discovered which are as colourful and fascinating as anything. Jan Philip Schulze’s playing shows a deep empathy with Henze’s creative voice, and with a richly powerful piano recording there are no barriers between the listener and the message. Henze shows that he was and is uncompromisingly a man of his times, and one to which, as passionate music fans, we owe a duty to hear.

Dominy Clements


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