Concert Review

Prom 63 Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 Henze: Symphony No. 9 (UK premiere)
Alfred Brendel, piano Davis Titterington, organ Berlin Radio Choir BBC Symphony Orchestra Ingo Metzmacher, conductor   Royal Albert Hall  Friday 1 September

Conceptually at least, the notion of a 'Ninth Symphony' retains its mystique - a throwing down of the gauntlet to the composer with his sights set, however subconsciously, on posterity. At the present time, Maxwell Davies has formally terminated his cycle at seven, while Penderecki continues to dither over what to include in his canon which, in any case, will not exceed nine. As a composer whose love/hate relationship with Germanic culture has underpinned his music since the beginning, Henze is unerringly placed to react to this challenge; his Ninth Symphony, completed in 1997 after two years of intensive work, is avowedly a "summa summarum of my musical oeuvre": a choral symphony, though, as with Tippett's Third, the relationship with Beethoven and the union of humanity can only be refracted through decades which point to the contrary.

As an embodiment of the oppression which the composer himself experienced during the Third Reich, the work has a specific source. Each of the even movements sets texts by Hans-Ulrich Treichel, inspired by Anna Segher's 1942 novel The Seventh Cross, with its narrative of seven escapees from a concentration camp progressively recaptured and crucified - except one, whose cross symbolically remains vacant. The first five movements broadly recount the process of pursuit and entrapment, in a Mahlerian arch of two intense movements framing two slower ones, around a brief but vicious scherzo. The lengthy sixth movement portrays the surviving fugitive as he seeks shelter in a cathedral, metaphorically coming face to face with death and salvation, which he - and, by implication, Segher and Henze himself - rejects as the negation of life. The final movement witnesses his escape down the Rhine, a qualified yet real affirmation of the survival of the human spirit.

A gripping, tangible groundplan, realized by Henze in music which continues and intensifies the post-Romantic language evolved in the wake of his Seventh Symphony (1984); the work where a stylistic amalgamation can be said to begin. There are some spellbinding passages to be sure: the lurching rhythmic dislocations of the opening 'escape' music, recalled at key points thereafter; the elegiac string writing which forms a postlude to the fifth movement, a reminder that Karl Amadeus Hartmann has long been Henze's spiritual as well as musical mentor; the spatial subdivisions of the chorus in the sixth movement, the tenuous beams of sound from 'The dead' and 'The saints' contrasting pointedly, at least in the Albert Hall acoustic, with the robust implorations of 'The fugitive'; the restrained, barcarolle-like motion as the final movement finds an uncertain repose in the hope of days to come.

Yet taken overall, the work feels amorphous, even unfocused in its impact. The many-layered richness of Henze's orchestration is not always articulated by a corresponding rhythmic incisiveness, leaving the music to drift in a haze of remembered emotion, recollected in the present as through a veil of temporal perception. Turgid would be too harsh a condemnation for a statement of such deep seriousness and intent; yet, as so often with Henze, the sense of an experience ghosted rather than actualized, of motions gone through rather than created anew, hung uneasily over the work. Were we being drawn in by the music itself or our own emotional promptings? A question to ponder, as Ingo Metzmacher's confident performance, with a superbly controlled contribution from the Berlin Radio Choir and David Titterington incisive in the brief but crucial organ part, came to a close. Do hear Metzmacher's recording of the 1997 premiere and decide for yourself [EMI CDC5 56513-2].

In the first half, Alfred Brendel made his 30th Proms appearance with a buoyant reading of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto; always a work he has done justice to, and the undoubted highlight of his recent cycle with Sir Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic [Philips 462 781-2PH3]. In its mingling of pathos, heroism and sheer energy, it stands at the gateway to an inspiring future.

Richard Whitehouse


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