S&H Concert review

Voices - Hans Werner Henze at 75: Henze - Requiem
Paul Crossley (pf) & Håken Hardenberger (trumpet), Philharmonia Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi, RFH, 4 April 2001 (MB)

The South Bank's early tribute to Henze's 75th birthday ended with a performance of one of the composer's greatest - and most imposing - works, the orchestral Requiem. It received a glowing performance by a conductor who has long championed Henze and by soloists who have lived with the work since its première in 1993.

Scored for thirty-three instruments it consists of nine sacred concertos - Henze's highly personal response to the Catholic liturgy and its Latin setting (even though he himself is not Catholic). Henze has described this as 'absolute music', the dominant factor being music which is predominantly imagistic and metaphorical in tone. The composer has also commented that the Requiem suggests a return to the harmonic world of Wagner, particularly that of Tristan und Isolde with its shared experience of Wagnerian chromaticism. Dohnányi, a conductor schooled in German Romanticism, did bring a Wagnerian sweep to this score, the interconnection of harmony and melody leading to a performance that made this music sound less austere than it sometimes can in live performance. Although this work has a fixed basic tempo, Dohnányi and the Philharmonia were more than responsive to the work's structural freedoms and were not afraid to emphasise the more personal aspects of this score.

The origins of the Requiem (which as Henze revealed during his talk almost became his Eighth symphony) lie in Henze's close friendship with Michael Vyner who, as music director of the London Sinfonietta, had championed many of Henze's works. The first composed piece, Introitus, was written for Paul Crossley, Vyner's lifetime friend. The pianist acts as chief mourner and Crossley's performance brought with it an expression of private love and grief it is difficult to imagine being superseded. The playing had an undisguised incandescence that told more about life and suffering, hope and love than a thousand words ever could. Henze's writing of the Dies Irae, as he explained in an illuminating pre-concert talk, is less to do with the Day of Wrath itself (and divine judgement) and more to do with one's own grief. This movement is reflective of the worst day in an individual's life, or the sum of many days' anguish, when the value of life is itself near to collapse. There was agitation in the playing, and wonderful introversion on the part of Crossley, which made this appear a movement played by soloists all expressing their personal angst. It remained the most personally reflective movement of the entire performance.

With the Rex tremendae, a movement composed in march and trio sections, we experience the first entry of the trumpet. Hardenberger was as reflective as Crossley had been earlier, giving deep expressive tone to his ironic portrayal of the King of Glory. Here one was reminded of something Henze had said earlier in the evening - that the trumpet part was partly inspired by thoughts of 'agitators and dictators'. Certainly the sharp solo writing with its angularity of phrasing more than hinted at this, but Hardenberger brought capricious dislocation to his phrasing that assaulted the ears. To quote Henze, it was to sound like 'spellbinding oratory'. To Hardenberg's credit this was precisely the effect.

With the Tuba mirum (ironically not for solo trumpet) Henze achieves moments of pictorial splendour we rarely encounter elsewhere in this work. The strident woodwind, ugly brass sonorities and myriad of percussion explosions etch on our memory the fascination with all that was most terrifying about Nazi Germany (an on-going Henze theme, for example in his Ninth Symphony). Here we have, as Henze describes in his autobiography, 'the sound of Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi Nuremberg….with the speed of flashlight photographs'. The Philharmonia brass were splenetic and percussive, each alive to the sounds of an individual voice. It was ritualistic playing that was meant to make us shudder.

The end of the work is an epiphany, an awakening to the horrors of what has preceded it. Here the polyphony was rich and transparent, the playing expressive and moving, and a glowing end to a great secular requiem. The performance was magnificent and often profound.

Henze's talk with John Drummond - 'an unusually witty and widely read individual' (Henze) - was often humorous and often revelatory. Drummond, a long time admirer and friend of Henze, who had originally programmed the British premiere of the Requiem (at the 1993 Proms) and had organised a ten concert festival of Henze's music at the Barbican in 1991, asked the simple question - why is Henze so under-rated in this country? The answer was not forthcoming. However, audiences are not entirely to blame: Sony has recently deleted the only available recording of the Requiem.

Marc Bridle

Seen&Heard is part of MusicWeb Webmaster: Len Mullenger Len@musicweb-international.com

Return to: Seen&Heard Index  

Return to: Music on the Web