Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Total Immersion – Hans Werner Henze Composer Day, 16 January 2010

Barbican Centre

Voices

Vocal Soloists from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Guildhall New Music Ensemble
Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor)

Toccata mistica
Variations, op. 13
Cherubino
Scorribanda pianistica
Fraternité

Symphony no.4
Elogium musicum (United Kingdom premiere)

Huw Watkins (piano)
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Oliver Knussen (conductor)

The BBC/Barbican Hans Werner Henze Day began with Barrie Gavin’s film, Memoirs of an Outsider, which includes interviews with Henze and a number of musicians close to him, as well as some ravishingly beautiful footage of the composer’s villa in the hills above Rome. I was unable to see it on this occasion but can wholeheartedly recommend it on DVD, or indeed should it be screened elsewhere.

Voices (1973), is described as ‘a collection of songs’ rather than a song-cycle, which seems just. Rather than being shared between two vocal soloists, the opportunity was granted to a number of singers (mezzos and tenors) from the Guildhall to contribute, which had the additional advantage of greater variety for the listener too. This is Henze at his most politically combative, taking us on a tour of the world’s disadvantaged, their voices hailing from Cuba, Vietnam, Puerto Rico, Black America, Greece, Italy, and Germany. From the opening Los poetas cubanos ya no sueñan (from Heberto Padilla’s Fuera del juego) to Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s closing Das Blumenfest, the revolutionary intensity can hardly be faulted. It is a fascinating work, but not perhaps one that has dated so well as some others. To have well over an hour and a half (at least given the breaks required by performance) of such protest songs, without any especially obvious progression tends to reinforce the compendious quality of the enterprise – doubtless part of the point, but even so... That said, some songs, as one might expect, impress more than others and there are moments of great sonorous beauty. The strained beauty of the Ho Chi Minh Prison Song put me in mind of the torture scene from Nono’s Intolleranza, after which the accordion’s entry for Brecht’s Keiner oder alle could hardly have provided a greater contrast. Sharp-edged woodwind added to the evocation of Weimar and indeed of Weill (Mahagonny). Cabaret would return more than once, notably in the languorous, yet properly alienating sleaze – relatively speaking – of Brecht’s Gedanken eines Revuemädchen während des Entkleidungsaktes. No, of course the showgirl does not enjoy what she does; nor does she ‘feel’ anything. The several contributions from recorders proved haunting, fragile in their humanity, not least for the parents having to transport the coffins of the children of Man Quang (Erich Fried’s 42 Schulkinder). Haunting was also the word for Caino, in which accordion and recorder could combine, almost seductive in their disconcertion.

It was difficult not to raise a smile at the deafening bruitage of the free market in Vermutung über Hessen, share the sentiment though one might. Moreover, I wondered, during the lengthy instrumental prelude to the Heine setting, Heimkehr, where Henze sounded at his most Romantic, whether this was really where he had wanted to be all along, likewise in the post-Schoenbergian piano writing of Patria. What disconcerted most, however, was the conclusion, mesmerising purely on its own terms: Das Blumenfest. Was this an attempt at reconciliation? If so, it hardly seemed the place, for what is there to reconcile? I was put in mind of the young Boulez criticising such attempts in late Berg – though Berg, I think, had better reason to be doing so. The performances, however, were all excellent. Singers, players, and Ryan Wigglesworth showed apparently total commitment to Henze’s cause. If I had to single out a favourite, it would probably be Nicholas Allen’s role as master of ceremonies in the savaging of Coca-Cola America (The Electric Cop, ‘for Herbert Marcuse’): a sort of American culture-industry cabaret. The only irritant, and it really was an irritant, was that very small section of the audience, its ringleader a demonstrative man in a pink jumper, which insisted on applauding after every number.

There then followed a second film, again from Barrie Gavin, of a performance of the Requiem, its sequence of nine sacred concertos one of Henze’s finest achievements. The ensuing talk is best skated over. Suffice it to say, it opened with a declaration of lack of expertise in Henze and yet managed to inspire less as time went on. Given that the composer was apparently elsewhere in the building speaking for a radio interview, it seemed a great pity that we could not simply have heard that.

In any case, the evening concert made amends. The first section – there were two intervals – had Huw Watkins present a selection of Henze’s works for solo piano. One thing that struck me – as it had during some of Voices – was how Henze seems unable, or perhaps unwilling, to escape the shadow of Schoenberg when writing for the instrument. There are other voices too, of course, for instance the Scarbo-like opening of the Toccata mistica (1994), and the more Webern-like serialism of the 1948 Variations, but Schoenberg, whatever the ambivalence of Henze’s feelings towards him, never quite vanishes. I had not heard the Variations before and was most impressed: the form and style never seemed to constrict the young composer but acted rather as a spur to expression, Watkins ensuring strong characterisation. The youthful impetuosity of Cherubino (1980-1) was winningly portrayed, which then perhaps made the violence, apocalypticism even, of the 2003 Scorribanda pianistica all the more shocking. It is, for those who might be puzzled, a piano version by Martin Ketz of the Scorribanda sinfonica, and works very well in its new guise.

Fraternité was a ‘message for the millennium,’ as requested by Kurt Masur for the New York Philharmonic. (It remains unclear why it should then have been performed in 1999, more than a year too early, but never mind.) Certain progressions and melodic twists put me in mind of Busoni, though this may simply be coincidence. The post-Bergian orchestral writing is certainly consistent with much of Henze’s practice at the time and there even seemed to be a few hat-tips to Wagner. Kaleidoscopic colours reaffirmed Henze’s mastery of orchestration, but ultimately I do not think this amounted to much more than a postcard message: fine at the time, no doubt, but paling when heard by the side of the Fourth Symphony, an offshoot from the opera, König Hirsch. Here Oliver Knussen and the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave as fine a performance as I can imagine it has received. Henze’s flight to Italy is celebrated, of course, but try as he might, he can only truly celebrate his new-found freedom in a German way. The forest inevitably conjures up visions of German Romanticism for him, from the opening horn-call (almost, but not quite, that for Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major Symphony) onwards. The four-movement-in-one structure again refers back to Schoenberg and, beyond him, to the Romantics. Joy expressed in the Mediterranean sun is very much of a Goethe-Mendelssohn tradition too – and all the better for it. Moreover, here, unlike Voices, such reconciliation as there might be does not sound forced or inappropriate; there is instead a lightness of touch, an almost Shakespearian fantasy, which would prove prophetic for a number of works that lay a long way in the future. If only some day we might hear König Hirsch itself…

The final work was Henze’s recent (2008) elegy for Fausto Moroni, Elogium musicum (in full: Elogium musicum amatissimi amici nunc remoti, ‘Musical Elegy for a most beloved Friend now Departed’). Once again, the BBC forces, now including the BBC Symphony Chorus, provided an exemplary performance. Having mentioned the persistence of Schoenberg above, I must do so again, for this almost seemed like a mini-Gurrelieder: weeping, anger, Nature, and finally something akin to apotheosis. Yet, despite the references in Franco Serpa’s Latin text to God, one knows that this remains as deeply pagan as the rest of Henze’s output. Whatever reconciliations he might attempt, some will surely remain several bridges too far. This was recognisably the world of Henze’s realisation of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria – which, as Sir Thomas Allen remarked in a recent interview, ‘You feel that the other versions, correct as they may be with the instruments of the day, you felt that they were coming out of the Vatican somehow. We were in Greece, in antiquity.’

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