Inexplicably I came late to this Hans Werner Henze series of the ten symphonies on Wergo, until now, only reviewing the final two releases: Nos. 1 and 6 on WER67242
and Nos. 2 and 10 on WER67252
. Such is the spectacular quality of these performances it is essential to file a review of the remaining six issued in 2008, 2009 and 2011.
On the evidence of these recordings it comes as no surprise that throughout its history the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin has shown a strong commitment to 20th century music and is undoubtedly a specialist in this repertoire. In the last five years I have heard the orchestra in concert at the Philharmonie, Berlin on a number of occasions and the standards of performance have been ones of consistent excellence with playing of astounding virtuosity.
The crowning glory of Henze’s output is his ten symphonies composed between 1947 and 2000. He remained especially proud of his considerable body of musical works with theatrical and literary associations counted among Europe’s foremost opera and ballet composers. German-born in 1926 at Gütersloh in Westphalia, Henze was in some circles regarded as one of the pre-eminent composers of the 20th century. In 1953 he readily left the country of his birth behind to become resident in Italy, initially in Ischia. At the time of his 75th birthday he had made his home in Rome. Throughout his career Henze immersed himself in a variety of compositional approaches both retrospective and radical. I have fond memories from the mid-1980s of attending a couple of performances of Henze’s challenging symphonies
played by the BBC Philharmonic. One concert was under the composer’s own baton and the other conducted by Elgar Howarth, both at the old BBC Studio 7, New Broadcasting House in Manchester. Henze’s orchestral works seemed impenetrable at first but they have certainly proved worth surmounting the challenges to reap the abundant rewards.
The first disc comprises Symphonies 3-5. An imaginary ballet, the Third Symphony
was composed in 1949/50 around the time of the premieres of Henze’s first opera Das Wundertheater
(The Magic Theatre) and the Ballet Variations
- Choreographic poem. This was Henze’s last symphony to be written in Germany before leaving the country disillusioned by the political situation and appalled by its homophobia. It was conductor Hans Rosbaud who unveiled the Third Symphony in October 1951 at the Donaueschingen Festival. Elements of twelve-tone techniques are used by Henze in each of the three movements yet this still remains reasonably accessible. With the titles of each movement to be used as indications of the atmosphere rather than as character descriptions Henze stated “New in this work is the thoroughly pagan atmosphere.” Also acknowledged is the influence of Stravinsky’s ballets. In the opening movement titled Invocation of Apollo
the rather ethereal character easily evokes a colourfully lit scene in a dark forest. Titled Dithyramb
, the second movement, a song or dance in honour of the wine god Dionysus, sports writing that induces an unsettling character of nervous anticipation. The finale Dance of Conjuration
is punctuated by darting, scurrying figures over a percussive piano. This creates a sense of tension and apprehension. A crushing climax delivers the element of surprise.
The Symphony No. 4 for large orchestra was composed in 1955 whilst he was working on his fantastical opera König Hirsch
(King Stag). This was Henze’s first symphony written in his new adopted home country of Italy which he liked to describe as his “Italian experience
.” For the Fourth Symphony Henze used the finale that had been cut from the second act of König Hirsch
(King Stag). Highly disciplined in construction the Fourth Symphony is cast in single movement containing four distinct sections metaphorically representing the four seasons of the year and lasting here almost twenty-two minutes. Henze had to wait over seven years before conducting the premiere of the Fourth Symphony with the Berliner Philharmoniker in October 1963 at the Hochschule für Musik, Berlin. I was stuck by the shifting blocks of orchestral sound often boldly urgent and colourfully exotic at other times having a steely grey introspection. The opening section representing summer is airless and sweltering and in the Adagio section the prominent cor anglais evokes autumn together with a sense of a light but refreshing breeze. Representing winter the Scherzo with its conspicuous harp part contains a sinister chill. In the finale the bold and strong brass laden writing evokes the regenerative potential of spring. Containing a menacing strength the section builds to a thunderous conclusion which quickly fades away to nothing.
From 1962 the Symphony No. 5
emanates from the period between the operas the Elegie für junge Liebende
(Elegy for Young Lovers) and Das Ende Einer Welt
(The End of a World). Henze explained “I believe this work is also influenced by the people and landscape of Rome.” The Fifth Symphony was introduced in May 1963 at the Avery Fisher Hall with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic. After the Second Symphony the Fifth is Henze’s shortest symphony here taking around twenty minutes to perform.
Regarding the character of the Fifth Symphony Henze wrote “It suggests the toccata-like activity of a great city like modern Rome - or it could also be modern New York City - with its physical energetic, hectic pace, dancing, and roughness.” The opening movement Movimentato
bursts with frenzied activity which easily suggests the bustling and robust activity of a city such as New York. An uneasy calm pervades the Adagio
with its prominent parts for flute, viola and cor anglais. As has been suggested the movement could easily depict white clouds slowly passing over a blue sky. The overriding mood of the finale marked the Moto perpetuo
is one of extreme restlessness almost manic in character yet a central passage feels like events are happening in slow motion. Angular writing quickly builds to a brassy and percussive climax that ends abruptly.
Issued in 2008 the second disc here on Wergo WER 6721 2 contains Henze’s Symphonies 7 and 8. Around fifteen years elapsed between completion of the Sixth Symphony and the appearance of the Symphony No. 7
for large orchestra. Considered by some as Henze’s finest symphony he wrote the four movement score during 1983/84, around the time of finishing his opera Die englische Katze
(The English Cat). Henze found inspiration from the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin and also from aspects of the German poet’s life. It was Gianluigi Gelmetti who conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in the premiere in December 1984 at the Philharmonie, Berlin. Titled Tanz
(Dance) the opening movement conveys a curious sense of weightlessness as if floating in space. Subsequently the music becomes sharply angular, developing an angry and unruly character. Described by Henze as “A kind of ode of mourning, a lament, a monologue” the beginning of the second movement has an airless feel with that recurring sense of weightlessness. A prominent oboe duet sings a curious lament before the writing increases in heft becoming angry before returning to the muggy atmosphere and sense of floating. Gathering in pace and weight the music belches out a series of hostile outbursts. Inspired by Hölderlin’s mental illness and subsequent detention in an asylum the third movement with its steely grinding quality has a chilling coldness that must surely represent the poet’s torment. The finale is a representation of Hölderlin’s poem Hälfte des Lebens
(Half of Life) and like the poem is in two divergent parts. According to Henze the opening section is a vision of a “deserted, cold, and speechless world” – a realm of icy beauty. The highly agitated and dark second section becomes increasingly angry and suddenly stops.
The three movement Symphony No. 8
for large orchestra was composed in 1992/93 around the time Henze was beginning work on his one act opera Venus und Adonis
. It was Seiji Ozawa who conducted the premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in October 1993 at the Symphony Hall, Boston. During his writing of the Eighth Symphony Henze stated he was greatly inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
. The opening Allegro
, based on Oberon asking Puck to seek out the magic flower and Puck’s line “I'll put a girdle round the earth / In forty minutes”, is symbolised by the wide dynamics and tempo fluctuations. These evince a strong sense of journeying at speed. Henze described the central Ballabile
as a “light-heartedly executed rondo form”. Here we have the fairy queen Titania, having drunk the sap of the magic flower, trying to seduce Bottom. This is appealing music, high spirited with a sense of endless revolving, becoming progressively more agitated and dizzy. The finale, an Adagio
, represents Puck’s speech “If we shadows have offended” and proclaims that the adventures were but a dream. A convincing surreal quality is conveyed successfully with a strengthening tension before all fades away to leave the world of the fairyland in peace and contentment.
The third disc - Wergo WER 6722 2 - was released in 2009. From 1996/97, the Symphony No. 9 for mixed chorus and orchestra is by far Henze’s most substantial work from this period. At fifty-three minutes it is also his longest symphony. During this time Henze’s opera Venus und Adonis
was introduced by conductor Markus Stenz in 1997 at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Henze sets text written by poet Hans-Ulrich Treichel based on the 1942 Holocaust novel Das siebte Kreuz
(The Seventh Cross) by Anna Seghers. At the premiere Ingo Metzmacher conducted the Rundfunkchor Berlin and Berliner Philharmoniker in September 1997 at the Philharmonie, Berlin. Designed in seven movements the music parallels Seghers’ novel about seven prisoners attempting to escape from a concentration camp. Seven trees are cut down to make seven crosses on which to crucify the prisoners. One manages to escape to Holland and his unused cross becomes a symbol of resistance. With this setting Henze is paying homage “to the heroes and martyrs of German anti-fascism.” I see this work as a public expression of his abhorrence of Germany’s behaviour in the early to mid 20th-century and his regard for those who struggled to resist the Nazi regime. Henze explained “What happens in this symphony is an apotheosis of terror and pain.”
All seven movements are choral. The highly unsettling first movement Die Flucht
(The Escape), where a man runs away from pursuers, is full of angry and anguished writing. The writing in the extremely tense and slow flowing second movement Bei den Toten
(Among the Dead) reminds me of the state of total exhaustion and terror of an escapee trying to hide from his enemy. Another dark movement, full of severe tension, Bericht der Verfolger
(The Persecutor’s Report) conveys the brutal and inhumane treatment meted out to the escapee. In the extremely heart-rending Der Platane spricht
(The Plane Tree Speaks) a tree is cut down to make a crucifix. First a shimmering atmosphere is fashioned combined with a martial undercurrent. Next comes a dark mood of agitation which is decidedly unsettling. The fugitive is chased by men with dogs in movement five Der Sturz
(The Fall). Climbing on top of a house he is shot and leaps off the roof to his death. Probably the emotional summit of the score this music has the power to affect — and is emotionally draining. Nachts in Dom
(Night in the Cathedral) is by some distance the longest movement. The wretched escapee seeks refuge in Mainz Cathedral at night-time and prays for help both to the statues of the Saints and to a figure of Jesus on the cross. Here Henze uses an organ for the first and only time in any of his orchestral works. The instrument’s dramatic power adds significantly to the eerie and feverish atmosphere. Titled Die Rettung
(The Rescue), the seventh and final movement is an Andante cantabile
without percussion and without loud outbursts. The music and the text join to evoke the scene of a fertile, fruit-laden valley forest with a river, maybe the river Rhine, running through it. Although with a constant disconcerting undercurrent of danger there is a glimmer of optimism too; for mankind, maybe. Directed by Simon Halsey, the impeccably prepared Rundfunk Chor Berlin, sing with an unerring feeling for Henze’s wretched and harrowing text. It all feels accurate, evocative and grippingly affecting. Beautifully in tune and with an unerring clarity of diction this is a purposeful and disciplined performance.
Providing steadfast direction throughout these six Henze symphonies is Warsaw-born chief conductor Marek Janowski undoubtedly one of the finest exponents of twentieth-century music around today. The Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin responds with relish and provide playing of unyielding directness and immediacy.
All three discs boast impressive sound quality that is cool, clear and well balanced yet with substantial presence.
This Henze series one of the greatest recording achievements of the last decade. Frequently challenging but always wholly absorbing Henze’s music provides an abundance of rewards. It is stunningly performed and recorded. The revelatory moments in this astonishing Wergo series are too many to enumerate.