Hans Werner HENZE (b.1929)
Symphony No.1 (1947, revised version for chamber orchestra 1963) [17:17]
Symphony No.5 for large orchestra (1962) [20:27]
Symphony No.6 for two chamber orchestras (1969) [37:44]
Symphony No.2 for large orchestra (1948) [20:59]
Symphony No.3 for large orchestra (1949–50) [24:22]
Symphony No.4 for large orchestra (1955) [29:56]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (1-5); London Symphony Orchestra/composer (6)
rec. 2-22 June 1965, UFA-TonStudio Berlin; (1-5); 20-21 April 1972, Brent Town Hall, London (6). ADD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 9194 [75:28 + 73:14] This densely packed analogue set has a long lineage. Symphonies 1-5 were first issued in 1967 on DG SLPM139 203-4, later DG 410 9371). The Sixth followed circa 1972 on DG 2530 261. The six symphonies were reissued together on CD (DG 429854-2) in the 1990s.

The analogue sound could hardly be more vital and Brilliant have lost nothing of that stunning immediacy in the transfer process. The even and regular hiss is a presence throughout but then so is the refined yet fleshy iron-tape originated vibrancy, the discreet creak of a chair and the unflinchingly-sustained spell cast by such concentrated musicianship.

It’s claimed that Henze's First Symphony is rife with the voices of Stravinsky, Bartók, Berg and Hartmann. That's as maybe but this gripping work, seethes with delightful and warm instrumental detail, seeming to bask in Mediterranean sunshine. Yes there is a Bergian quality and a mordant aggression to the finale but more often than not it communicates as a work for voluptuaries. There is even some lyrical Tippett in the mix.

The Fifth is said to depict the 'conflicts and joys prompted by the sensuous happiness of 20th-century Rome, its people and countryside'. Henze had moved to Italy in the early 1950s after the cultural climate in Germany had cooled towards him. There is warmth and tenderness here especially in the middle movement and Henze’s extraordinarily inventive palette is strikingly deployed. The mind is kept constantly intrigued and engaged and in the first movement one can certainly make out the voice of Stravinsky. As a sample do listen to the pitter-patter opening of the finale of this three movement work. This is not all about drowsy lotus-eaters. There is urgency and something raspingly darker and jaggedly serious in the finale which also features violent brass writing and explosive piano solos. I am not at all surprised that this work was premiered by Bernstein and the NYPO. Its kinetic blast is such that one can easily imagine Bernstein swaying and slashing his way through the finale.

The Sixth Symphony was a later and separate DG project. It’s the longest work here and is helpfully presented in fifteen tracked sections arranged in three parts. In linguistic terms it is the most extreme and dissonantly disrupted of the symphonies featured here. The canvas is typically active with detail both loud and whispered. Strange watery sounds mix with wobble-board ululations, shifting strings, haunted woodwind, banjo and mandolin. Tr. 13, Song of Freedom (Theodorakis) has a rollingly heroic episode for the horns. This is a true concerto for orchestra with solo instrumental voices constantly emerging and demanding the limelight then being swept away by roaring horror-struck brass. There are idyllic moments too as in tr. 15 but these are momentary remissions amid the seething dread. The notes refer to the symphony as a collage and this is, I think, spot-on. It was written during Henze’s sojourn in Marxist Cuba and reflects the composer’s espousal of Marxism and revolutionary change. In addition to the Theodorakis we are told that a Vietnamese Liberation Front song has also part of the weave. Henze is said to have described the workt as 'a Lutheran, Protestant symphony' with a 'Pagan body' whose 'pulse and blood are black'. As a work overall it didn’t greatly appeal to me but it is good that it is available for the devoted and the curious.

We can now turn to the second disc. The Second Symphony again displays the composer’s attention to quiet and warm writing as well as minuscule instrumental detail. Its episodes proceed as a sequence of mosaic elements. Only in the finale are longer lines unleashed to writhe amid boiling torment. 'Bright, dance-like and hectic' is how the composer described the similarly three movement Third. It’s mien is that of a drifting Mediterranean nocturne until more dynamic and even vengeful writing takes centre-stage. The stomp of Conjuring Dance (III) suggests an admiration for Stravinsky (Sacre); certainly it dispels any redolence of idyllic drowsiness. It’s a superb piece of work and the finale is very exciting even if it does end in a perfunctory way. The half-hour Fourth is in nine movements. It draws on material from the opera König Hirsch (King Stag) which is based on a fairy tale by Carlo Gozzi. Again that warm and romantically laved moonlit atmosphere predominates. The music is by turns confiding, revealing, introspective, irate only occasionally (tr. 13) and then rowdy melting into exultant and glowing in the final pages.

I am not sure if there is an Eleventh but these CDs, supplemented by contributions from EMI Classics (7 and 9), Accord (10) and Phoenix (8), mean that the ten symphonies are available on CD.

The concentrated and well-considered liner-note is by Malcolm Macdonald – always a class act.

The work of a provocatively imaginative romantic as well attuned to writing in the finest close-up detail as in the great sweeping tragic paragraphs of the twentieth century.

Rob Barnett

Classics recordings of the symphonies of a provocatively imaginative romantic as well attuned to writing in the finest close-up as in great sweeping tragic paragraphs.