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Hans Werner HENZE (1926–2012)
Neue Volkslieder und Hirtengesänge, for Bassoon, Guitar and String Trio (1983/1986) [13:55]
Kammermusik 1958, on the Hymn ‘In lieblicher Bläue’ by Friedrich Hölderlin, for Tenor, Guitar and Eight Solo Instruments [46:45]
Andrew Staples (tenor), Jürgen Ruck (guitar), Markus Weidmann (bassoon)
Scharoun Ensemble Berlin/Daniel Harding
rec. 2013-16, Kammermusiksaal der Philharmonie, Berlin
TUDOR 7198 [60:46]

Even more perhaps than those of most composers, the works of Hans Werner Henze present many different faces to the world. His Wikipedia entry sums this up very well: “His large oeuvre of works is extremely varied in style, having been influenced by serialism, atonality, Stravinsky, Italian music, Arabic music and jazz, as well as traditional schools of German composition” – before adding, with masterly understatement, “Henze was also known for his political convictions.” The two works recorded on this disc come from very different phases of Henze’s career and do not have all that much in common, save a slightly tangential connection in both cases to the myth of Oedipus; but they do both represent Henze at his most approachable.

The newer and less substantial work, Neue Volkslieder und Hirtengesänge, comes first. It dates originally from a period in the early 1980s, when Henze was working as an animateur in the rather impoverished ex-steel town of Mürzzuschlag in the eastern Austrian province of Styria. One of his projects was a play about Oedipus, through which he intended, amongst other things, to build bridges and forge bonds between Greek tragedy, the contemporary music scene and the everyday lives of young unemployed people. One wonders rather how that might have gone; but Henze composed for the occasion a series of songs and interludes for voice, guitar and string trio, which in 1996 underwent substantial revision to become the “New Folk Songs and Pastorals” recorded here. One of that revision’s most important innovations was the replacement of the singer with a solo bassoon, whose voice might also, in Henze’s mind, be seen as encompassing the sounds of a shepherd’s shawm. Moreover Henze is quoted in Tudor’s booklet as claiming that, through this re-composition, he had expressed a “need to capture something of the atmosphere, of the mood of this melancholy region [Styria], like a dream or a painful memory”.

Both the work’s genesis and its later stated aim clearly made their mark on the score as we have it now. Certainly it is pervaded by a creative tension between ‘folk’ and ‘modern’ idioms. Straightforward melodies and strophic forms are sometimes enriched, sometimes seemingly undercut by progressive harmonies and more or less symphonic developmental processes, to frequently striking effect. In the third section (of seven), for example, marked ‘Ballade’, an innocent-sounding guitar tune is joined initially by a jaunty, no doubt rustic bassoon, but then by a series of string entries that distort and disrupt it, in a way that manages somehow to remind one of the impact of atmospheric interference on an old-fashioned radio broadcast. Similarly, the following ‘Tanz’ has its initial lively stability and focus undercut by more contemporary and disruptive sounds, which come seemingly from a rather different world, and which have the cumulative effect of rendering the dance decidedly squiffy. Movements such as this, which leave a good deal to the imagination, do indeed have a certain dream-like quality, as well as the sense of melancholy and of painful memory, to which Henze also refers. This is already part-and-parcel, for example, of the opening ‘Pastorale’. Altogether the Neue Hirtengesänge seem to me to constitute a coherent and affecting cycle, which perhaps deserves to be more widely known.

Coherence, either of style or of subject-matter, is perhaps less obviously present in the companion work, rather prosaically entitled Kammermusik 1958. This has thirteen sections, the first twelve of which, dedicated to Benjamin Britten, were first performed in Hamburg in November 1958 by Peter Pears, Julian Bream and an instrumental group directed by the composer. The last movement, a most eloquent adagio epilogue, was added later, in 1963. The work, as it now stands, has three settings for tenor with guitar accompaniment and three more for tenor, guitar and octet, along with three short pieces for guitar solo and four movements – including the first and the last – played by just the octet. The initial impression one has of a somewhat loose mish-mash of pieces is arguably confirmed by the fact that certain movements from the Kammermusik were re-packaged by Henze to be performed separately – as the Three Tentos for Solo Guitar and Three Fragments from Hölderlin for Tenor and Guitar (a title surely designed as a nod to that of Britten’s Six Hölderlin Fragments, Op. 61).

The listener also has little difficulty in discerning various different influences on the work: above all the Second Viennese School (especially Alban Berg?), but also Britten (the opening horn call could come straight out of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings), the Elizabethan lute song (to which Henze had been introduced by Bream and Pears), and the culture – or perhaps I mean climate – of the Mediterranean. Henze was, after all, living in Naples while he was composing the main bulk of the work, and moreover had also not long returned from a trip to Greece.

This disc does, however, succeed in persuading one that the Kammermusik is more than just the sum of its parts. Its diverse movements are, after all, carefully laid out: all the even-numbered movements feature the tenor, and each is followed by an instrumental reflection of some kind which seems to underscore the mood, if not necessarily the musical texture, of the foregoing vocal contribution. Moreover the framing of the work by a powerful instrumental preface and epilogue also add much to its structural coherence; and Henze is careful to ensure that none of the individual sections outstays its welcome or unbalances the architecture of the whole. And, of course, the six texts sung by the tenor are all parts of the same prose hymn, ‘In lieblicher Bläue’, by the almost exact contemporary of Beethoven, Friedrich Hölderlin. Reprehensibly perhaps, Tudor print only the original German texts, without translation; but I am not sure how much that really matters, given that many native German-speakers would not be a great deal wiser after reading them. Hölderlin is a notoriously ‘difficult’ author, albeit one of very great importance for the development of German Romanticism; and he offers here a characteristically heady brew of pantheism, mysticism, Hellenism and the occasional memorably sententious statement such as “purity is beauty” or “life is death, and death is also a life”. For all his seeming opacity, however, Hölderlin has been a significant source of inspiration for many composers. Indeed this very hymn recently formed the basis for Julian Anderson’s Violin Concerto, In lieblicher Bläue, first performed in 2015; and here too it inspires Henze to settings of great astuteness and sensitivity. They are decidedly taxing for the soloist. Andrew Staples has to deal with numerous substantial and somewhat unpredictable leaps over a range of some two octaves; but he acquits himself admirably (his top is especially good). His tone can be slightly nasal, once in a while indeed distantly reminiscent of Peter Pears, but overall his voice is a good deal more attractive and his interpretative choices less controversial than Pears’s sometimes were – even if his German isn’t quite as good.

As with the Neue Volkslieder, however, the constituent parts of the Kammermusik are held together perhaps above all by a common tone and mood. Here, too, there is a pervasive stylistic tension, between the constraints of dodecaphony and the ambitions of sometimes soaring melody; and to this is added a comparable interplay between light, shimmering, one is tempted to say Mediterranean textures and something much darker, more sombre, more austere.

This is the only CD to date to include this precise coupling – though Naxos’s unglamorously titled Henze: Guitar Music 1, featuring the playing of Franz Halász, goes quite close to it. That disc, which was admired by my colleague Göran Forsling (review), includes the Neue Volkslieder, and also the Three Hölderlin Fragments [10:23, sung by Colin Balzer] and Three Tentos [5:35]. That is much less than half of the Kammermusik, however. For the rest one would have to turn to one of two recent Wergo releases: one featuring the tenor Clemens C. Löschmann, guitarist Maximilian Mangold and conductor Jörg-Peter Mittmann (WER 67462) and the other Jürgen Ruck again, this time with Peter Gijsbertson and the conductor/composer Peter Rusicka (review). Both of these issues have been well received, though it should be noted that Rusicka plays a version of the Kammermusik arranged for string orchestra, rather than five solo strings. Much will no doubt depend on couplings: both Mittmann and Rusicka have other works by Henze, Being Beauteous in the case of the latter, Apollo et Hyazinthus and the Canzona per sette strumenti in that of the former.

No one could be disappointed, though, with the expert, beautifully recorded performances of the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin; and indeed one could argue that they enjoy a certain personal authority and authenticity. The Kammermusik 1958 featured in one of their first concerts in 1983, an occasion which ushered in a close artistic partnership with Henze that lasted until his death. In the course of this association Henze also worked with the group on the Neue Volkslieder, and the Kammermusik became its ‘calling card’. Not quite an imprimatur, admittedly; but not bad going none the less.

Nigel Harris

 

 




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