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Hans Werner HENZE (1924-2012)
Los Caprichos (1963, orch 1967) [15.27]
Heliogabalus Imperator (1972, rev 1986) [29.01]
Englische Liebeslieder (1985) [22.49]
Ouverture zu einem Theater (1912) [4.29]
Anssi Karttunen (cello)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Oliver Knussen
rec. 24/25 February, 2014 (Heliogabalus Imperator), 'live' 7 February 2014 (other works),  BBC Maida Vale Studio 1, London
WERGO WER73442 [72.11]

The focal point of this Henze collection is his ‘symphonic poem’ Heliogabalus Imperator, which seems surprisingly to be receiving its first commercial release on disc. I say surprisingly because, given Henze’s pre-eminent reputation in the 1960s and early 1970s every single one of his works seemed to have found their way onto LP within a matter of years of their first performance; but by 1972, despite the prestigious circumstances of the première of Heliogabalus commissioned by Sir Georg Solti and performed by orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony and the London Philharmonic, his star was beginning to wane. I remember hearing the first London performance of the work on a BBC broadcast (which I illicitly taped for further listening) and being distinctly under-impressed. In the first place, I was far from convinced by the composer’s programme which attempted to portray the short-lived Roman emperor as a pioneering iconoclast (based on the revisionist anarchist interpretation of Antonin Artaud). Even given the tendency of Roman historians to report salacious gossip as fact, I was well aware of this writings of Dio Cassio (who had lived through the reign of the young ruler, and was writing during the rule of his cousin) which provided plenty of circumstantial detail to show that he was thoroughly unfit for his position – and this in an era where the Romans could deify ostentatiously homosexual emperors such as Trajan and Hadrian without any hesitation. The portrait sketched by Dio depicted instead a profligate youth who was totally lacking in self-control and was eventually sacrificed to the fury of the Roman mob by a family who found themselves unable to countenance his outrageous behaviour any longer. The attempt by Henze to whitewash the emperor’s reputation was of course of no consequence in musical terms; but some of the writing, in particular the improvisatory passages assigned to various soloists and the use of dubiously effective multiple sonics from the woodwind, struck me as ineffective at best and risible at worst. I was not altogether therefore surprised when the piece more or less vanished from concert programmes after its initial run of performances, and I note that the composer himself clearly felt a sense of dissatisfaction when he revised the piece to eliminate some of the weaker and improvisatory passages. It is this revised version that is presented on this disc; I cannot undertake any comparisons with the original score, since my illicit tape has long since succumbed to damp damage. But it does appear now to be a more readily appreciable score, and some passages such as the emperor’s appearance before the senate now hold together more cogently than I seem to recall. The only cavil indeed I would have with this performance, recorded in sessions extending over two days, is that some of the high-flying violin lines – particularly in the orgiastic depiction of the celebration of Baal – lack the sense of abandon which I can imagine might have been brought to the music by the Chicago strings when urged on by the excitable Solti. Not that the BBC players are lacking in sheer panache in this music, and there is certainly none of the sense of unease that one encounters sometimes in 1970s archive performances of then-modern music; but there are occasional moments like these in Henze’s score where one would welcome a really romantic approach and sound. Nonetheless this is a most welcome addition to the catalogue.

The other two principal works on this disc also have a programmatic background, but Henze seems to have gone out of his way to conceal it. The English Love Songs were originally inspired by a series of poems by widely mixed writers such as Shakespeare, the Earl of Rochester, Robert Graves and James Joyce, as well as an anonymous tango whose author the composer claimed to have forgotten. But Henze’s wish to case a veil of oblivion over his sources went much further than that. “I do not wish to reveal the names of the poems,” he wrote at the time of the first performance, and he later observed that to do so “would only distract the listeners.” This is arrant nonsense. There are many points at which it is clearly evident that the music is referring to a specific image in the author’s poetry – the emotional storm at the end of the third movement, or the tempestuous riot of sound in the sixth – and it would certainly assist the listener to know precisely what the composer is driving at. It is not as if the secret has been particularly well-kept; the Henze specialist Peter Peterson has published the literary sources in a musicological text, and it is only the circumspection of Thomas Schulz in his booklet note that has deprived the purchaser of this disc of the information in question. And elsewhere in the booklet the solo cellist Anssi Karttunen reveals in passing that the tempest in the last movement actually comes from Shakespeare’s sonnet no 128 – a revelation which only discloses how far Henze “analysed and transported” the mood of that poem for his musical treatment. Be that as it may, this is a thoroughly enjoyable work in six distinct and varied movements, and Anssi Karttunen proves to be a skilful and sympathetic interpreter; the end of the work, with a solo string quartet fading gently away, is very effective indeed.

Los Caprichos is another work which seeks to interpret another form of art in musical terms – in this case the satirical paintings of Goya, premièred in 1967 when Henze had begun his association with left-wing politics but based on material conceived some four years earlier. The composer explained some years later that he sought to show “the pain, sarcasm and terror in Goya’s work without using too many expressive techniques from the twentieth century.” Actually the latter are quite heavily in evidence, and Henze’s wish to produce music that would have “been both possible and acceptable in Goya’s time” is hardly realised. There are references to themes by Bellini and some elements of Sicilian folksong, but both are seen through the prism of Henze’s own musical vision; and the series of variations take us still further from nineteenth century roots. Again the composer makes no attempt to actually illustrate Goya’s paintings, although he does give titles to each of the nine connected movements; but since these are each relatively short (none over three minutes), this leaves little time for any depiction of the art itself such as one finds in Mussorgsky.

The disc concludes with Henze’s final orchestral work, the Overture for a theatre written in 2012. This is great fun, and I get the distinct impression that Henze for once was not taking himself too seriously. The galloping rhythms, and the riotous piling of one pounding discord on top of another towards the end, show that the composer had lost none of his zest despite his wistful statement recorded by Thomas Schulz’s booklet note that he “could feel his energy slipping away.” Indeed he was unable to attend the first performance of the work – he died seven days later – but the results are full of mischief and indeed joy.

Apart from the studio recording of Heliogabalus, the three remaining tracks on this disc were all taken from a single live broadcast, and the sheer quality of the playing under the late and much-lamented Oliver Knussen is breathtaking. There are occasional points where one feels that the tuned percussion may be rather too closely observed by the microphone, and the strings (as noted) too recessed, but these are minor quibbles in a recorded acoustic that brings out every strand of the often extremely intricate textures. We should be grateful that after five years these recordings have finally received a commercial release, complete with substantial booklet notes in both English and German. There is a nice touch, too, with the cover illustration; on the front of the booklet we are given tantalising details from the 1888 painting The roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and then in the tray inset the whole work is disclosed in all its prettified would-be eroticism. A nice touch indeed.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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