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Hans Werner HENZE (1926-2012)
Sinfonie für Kammerorchester (1946/47, rev. 1963, 1991) [20:49]
Sinfonia N. 6 für zwei Orchester (1969, rev. 1994) [40:16]
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Marek Janowski
rec. 28-29 August 2012 (Sinfonie für Kammerorchester); 8-9, 11 June 2012 (Sinfonia No. 6) Rundfunk, Berlin-Brandenburg, Haus des Rundfunks, Sendesaal 1, Germany
WERGO WER 6724 2 [61:17]

This release, the latest in Wergo survey of the Henze symphonies, comprises Symphonies 1 and 6 played by the excellent Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under their Warsaw-born musical director and chief conductor Marek Janowski. Throughout their history the Berlin Radio orchestra has shown a strong commitment to twentieth-century music and must be counted a specialist in this repertoire. 

In some circles Hans Werner Henze was regarded as one of the pre-eminent composers of the 20th century. Born at Gütersloh in Westphalia Henze in 1953 became resident in Italy initially in Ischia. At the time of his 75th birthday his home was in Rome. Throughout his career he immersed himself in a variety of compositional approaches both retrospective and strongly progressive becoming acknowledged as one of the European avant-garde. Although he composed in many genres his passion for literature and theatre inspired him to become one of Europe’s foremost opera and ballet composers. Central to Henze’s output are his ten symphonies composed between 1947 and 2000. In the mid-1980s I recall attending a couple of performances of Henze’s challenging symphonies played by the BBC Philharmonic. One concert was under the composer’s baton and the other conducted by Elgar Howarth both at the BBC Studio 7, New Broadcasting House in Manchester.
Henze’s First Symphony the Sinfonie für Kammerorchester has a rather convoluted history. The first version of the four movement score was written in 1946-47. It was one of the composer’s first orchestral works. The twenty-year old had been demobilised two years earlier from the Wehrmacht and was still a student under Wolfgang Fortner at Heidelberg. In 1947 at the première under Hermann Scherchen at the Darmstadt festival a problem with the legibility of the handwritten score resulted in only the second movement being performed. The world première of the complete four movement score was finally given in 1948 at Bad Pyrmont conducted by Fortner. Highly dissatisfied with the work, in 1962 Henze mentioned to the Berliner Philharmoniker management about a new chamber orchestra version of the score. Essentially the slow movement had not been altered but displeased with his original efforts Henze in 1963 radically rewrote the other movements; incorporating the Scherzo into the final movement. It was the Berliner Philharmoniker with the composer conducting who introduced the new chamber orchestra version of the First Symphony in 1964 at the Philharmonie. They went on to recorded the score a year later at the UFA-Tonstudio in Berlin for Deutsche Grammophon. Henze again revised the score in 1991 and premièred the work the same year again with the BPO at the Philharmonie Berlin. An eightieth birthday commission from the Bayerische Staatsoper resulted in Henze preparing a fourth version in 2005 this time using fifteen players. He titled the work Kammerkonzert 05 and it was premiered in Munich in 2006. On the present recording it is the 1991 version under the title of the Sinfonie für Kammerorchester that Marek Janowski has selected. Revisiting the three movement score after some time it certainly feels more accessible than I remember, strongly reminding me of early Lutosławski and Panufnik. The shadowy opening movement, right from the opening woodwind cries over anxious percussion and low strings, is permeated with dark foreboding. I was especially struck by the lush strings that dominate the lyrical Notturno: Lento. Although it’s difficult to pin down, the overall mood is one of cool melancholy and surprisingly the music at times evokes the sound-world of the last two symphonies of Vaughan Williams. The overtly sinister character of the Finale: Allegro con moto is dominated by wide dynamics and increasingly unsettling emotional tension. A sense of turmoil asserts itself before finally decaying to nothing.
Fiercely committed to left-wing politics, Henze was inclined to place his political ideology in the opera house and the concert hall … and anywhere else he could. Feeling real solidarity with the revolutionary Communist regime in Cuba Henze visited the island twice at the invitation of the Cuban National Cultural Council and taught there. It was in Havana, Cuba in 1969 that Henze composed his Symphony No. 6 for two chamber orchestras (Sinfonia No. 6 für zwei Orchester) a work he dedicated to the Revolution. It’s the most original of all Henze’s symphonies and the colourful scoring includes a banjo, guitar, amplified violin and electric organ with the orchestra divided into two similarly proportioned chamber orchestras.
The music flows through three expansive sections played continuously. Henze quotes from a number of political songs and includes a Cuban dance rhythm. In 1969 the world première was given in Havana under the composer with the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional. Later, in 1972, Henze conducted a recording of the original 1969 version of the symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra at Brent Town Hall, London. This was ultimately issued as part of the Deutsche Grammophon 20th Century Classics series. Henze made revisions in 1994 separating the three movements and rewriting the aleatoric and improvisatory sections. This version was presented that same year in Munich with the Münchner Philharmoniker under Ingo Metzmacher. It is this 1994 revision of the Sixth Symphony that Marek Janowski has recorded for the present release.
In truth this is a tough work that requires a reasonable degree of concentration by the listener. I had to play the symphony a few times before gaining the rewards. Using an array of progressive compositional elements the extensive opening Allegro con moto is full of energy and contains some highly unsettling writing. A contradictory quality is secured through the build up of sound-clusters build up followed by a relaxation in intensity. The second movement with its Lento marking is typically perplexing with strange rustling, scuttling sounds that emanate from constantly changing groups of instruments. Presented in a frenzied manner a flurry of short climaxes, loud and disturbing add to the overall mood of uncertainty and nervous anticipation. If anything the Finale: Allegro Vivace is darker than anything heard before in the score. With real vitality everything feels distorted and disconcerting. At around points 6:01-9:05 an uneasy calm takes over allowing a brief respite. Then with a curious mix of angular shapes and garish colours the writing becomes disjointedly rhythmic. Any suggestion of the sound of traditional Cuban music escaped me.
It takes a real master to bring all the complex often perplexing elements together in Henze’s music and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin respond exceptionally well to Janowski’s assured and clear direction. Savouring every detail and nuance the Berlin players give taut yet brilliant performances that merit praise. The engineers have provided appealingly clear well balanced sound.
The music of Hans Werner Henze is splendidly served by this outstanding Wergo disc.
Michael Cookson