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Hans Werner HENZE (1926-2012)
Il Vitalino raddoppiato* (1977) [33:17]
Violin Concerto No. 2 for solo violin, tape, bass baritone and 33 instrumentalists (1971) [34:58]
Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin and conductor)/Longbow Omar Ebrahim (speaker)
Parnassus Ensemble London/Hans Werner Henze (conductor)
rec. All Saints, Tooting, London 15 July 2013 (Il Vitalino); Barbican Centre, London 14 January 1991
NAXOS 8.573289 [68:15]

Three years after his death Henze’s star show no sign of waning. All his symphonies have been recorded, most of them more than once, and his operas are regularly revived. Yet it remains hard to get his work into focus. Some of it seems marvellous while some of his works appear total failures. Perhaps this is inevitable when a composer is so prolific.

He wrote three violin concertos, of which this second, written in 1971, is the most experimental. It is really a music theatre work, and it would take a DVD to do full justice to the original conception. The soloist is supposed to enter after the orchestra has started playing, dressed as Baron Munchausen. The conductor repeatedly stops him from playing and there is a moment when the soloist grabs the baton. This sort of thing was very fashionable at the time. If I say that it now seems silly I would add that to some of us it seemed silly enough at the time. Add to this that, at intervals, there is a speaker who delivers remarks relating to Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. You can look this up – it is very important in mathematical theory but in the context of a violin concerto it seems like boasting.

However, apart from the visual elements, the work is given the best possible chance in this recording which derives from a live performance with this same soloist and Henze himself conducting. The BBC had lost the master tape but fortunately a copy turned up at the National Sound Archive and has been refurbished for this issue. The result sounds fine, and Naxos and all concerned should take a bow. I hope there will be many more such resuscitations of past performances of modern or recent works. I don’t find this concerto a complete success: there are some beautiful passages, some rather scrappy ones and some excursions into various other idioms ranging from the Renaissance to the time of composition. The main difficulty is that none of them are sustained enough to provide a convincing musical experience. Skærved offers commanding playing and if at times his tone sounds harsh then maybe that’s what the composer wanted. The Parnassus Ensemble provide assured support and the tape is unobtrusive.

I enjoyed the coupling more. This is in effect another violin concerto, in the form of a free fantasia on the famous chaconne by Tomaso Vitali (1663-1745). The soloist is accompanied by a chamber orchestra which includes such un-eighteenth century instruments as a piccolo and a bass clarinet as well as a harp, which has an important part. Skærved explains the structure in his own full and helpful sleeve-note. Vitali’s theme is first presented accompanied by the harp, then Henze provides Vitali’s variants, each followed by his own. The harmonies gradually shift and the climax is an extended cadenza which a short orchestral conclusion. The effect is somewhat similar to that of Tippett’s Fantasia Concertante on a theme of Corelli. Apparently this is its first recording which is surprising for it is a beautiful work which I have been glad to get to know.

The concerto has, however, been recorded several times. There was a studio recording on Decca with Brenton Langbein and the London Sinfonietta, conducted by the composer. Recently Torsten Janicke made an integral set of all three violin concertos, though not Il Vitalino raddoppiato. It was on a two disc set from MDG. I should add that this disc is a companion to an earlier Naxos disc on which Skærved plays the other two concertos. If you have that already, you will want this. If you feel you should catch up with Henze’s violin concertos then you can do so and Il Vitalino raddoppiato will be your reward.

Stephen Barber



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