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Hans Werner HENZE (1926-2012)
Das Floß der Medusa ('The Raft of the Medusa') (1968, rev. 1990)
Camilla Nylund - La Mort (soprano)
Peter Schöne - Jean-Charles (baritone)
Peter Stein - Charon, Narrator
SWR Vokalensemble, WDR Rundfunkchor, Freiburger Domsingknaben
SWR Symphonieorchester / Peter Eötvös
rec. 2017, Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg, Konzerthaus Freiburg.
SWR CLASSIC SWR19082CD [69:27]

Henze’s oratorio The Raft of the Medusa emerged into the heated political environment of 1968, and the booklet notes for this release tell of the riot that occurred at its premiere, NDR radio being forced to broadcast a recording of the production’s final rehearsal. Henze’s provocative dedication of the work to Che Guevara didn’t help in this regard, the red flag compared to a red rag in the booklet notes; the composer’s isolation as neither a true avant-garde nor as suitable for the conservative concert circuit emphasised by his being branded a ‘salon communist.’ There was a subsequent premiere at the Vienna Musikverein in 1971, but this is the only recording of the work to have been released since that first radio recording was published by Deutsche Grammophon as part of its Henze Edition.

In some ways, The Raft of the Medusa is a reasonably straightforward narrative, telling the horrific story of the French frigate Méduse which ran aground on a sandbank on its way to Senegal in 1817. The incompetent captain commandeered the lifeboats for himself, his family and the other passengers, while the crew were left to attempt survival on a hastily constructed wooden raft. Of these 147 unfortunate souls only 15 were eventually rescued, and only 10 of those survived, the appalling tale of violence and cannibalism aboard that nightmarish raft recorded by an Afro-European sailor Jean-Charles. We should all know that huge painting by Theodore Gericault, and the sheer physical presence of this monumental work of art can usefully be at the back of your mind while listening to this recording. Librettist Ernst Schnabel based his text for the oratorio on Jean-Charles’ diary, and with Henze’s powerful score this work became a “documentary oratorio” that was their response to these catastrophic events, as well as tackling their wider interest in the failure of civilisation.

This is a large-scale work in every sense, scored for large orchestra, a speaker, a soprano, a baritone, and three choruses. The narration is in German, as is the printed libretto, but Peter Stein’s clarity of diction as the narrator is helpful, and with a little tuning-in you can hopefully follow what is going on well enough. Henze’s score is in some ways of its time – an eventful and colourfully dramatic setting in which the oratorio traditions of solo and chorus are maintained, but in that angular idiom that, unfairly in this case, has in the past been summed up by cynical critics as ‘squeaky gate.’ Indeed, there are no juicy arias or consolatory chorales, but if any subject was suited to the urgent high drama of atonality combined with detailed orchestration and emphatic word setting then it has to be The Raft of the Medusa. There are indeed some strikingly atmospheric moments from the chorus in particular, and soprano Camilla Nylund’s range is remarkable. This is not a recording to which you can sit back and relax, but by which we should all be impressed and from which we can all learn new things.

Fans who know this work from its Deutsche Grammophon premiere conducted by the composer and with the voices of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Edda Moser no less, will be interested in comparing and contrasting these two performances. The 1968 recording still sounds remarkably good, though this new SWR version captures more orchestral detail and in a less artificial sounding stereo mix. There is a reason for this however, in that the left side of the stage is designated “the Side of the Living” and the right side, “the Side of the Dead.” This aspect of the score is less well-defined in the SWR recording. Peter Eötvös is a touch more energetic in his conducting, bringing the whole in a good five minutes shorted than Henze, who is by no means a slouch, but gives just a little more space to the second part in particular. This cast is every bit the equal of the older recording, but true Henze scholars will want both.

With today’s recent and ongoing refugee disasters playing out on the Mediterranean, The Raft of the Medusa is as potent a protest now as it was back in the 1960s, and Walter Weidringer concludes his booklet note with the telling quote, “Have we ‘learned from reality’ yet?” Clearly not, and certainly not when it comes to pompously egocentric governors running their ship aground for no good reason other than their own weakness and incompetence, and then running off with the only available lifeboats…

Dominy Clements

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