Hans Werner HENZE (1926-2012)
Symphony No. 2 for large orchestra (1949) [17:52]
Symphony No. 10 for large orchestra (1997/2000) [38:32]
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Marek Janowski
rec. 28-29 August 2012 (2), 12-14 June 2013 (10), Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, Haus des Rundfunks, Berli, Germany
WERGO WER67252 [56:35]
This spectacular Wergo disc marks the completion of a cycle of the symphonies of Hans Werner Henze played by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under musical director and chief conductor Marek Janowski (see review of earlier release). Orchestras are not usually organisations that forget leading anniversaries. It is fitting that this February 2014 release coincides with Janowski’s seventy-fifth birthday. Throughout its history the Berlin Radio orchestra has shown a strong commitment to twentieth-century music. The wonderful performances in this Henze series demonstrate their undoubted prowess in this sphere.
In some circles Henze is regarded as one of the pre-eminent composers of the 20th century. The more I hear his music the more I can agree with this viewpoint. A native of Gütersloh in Westphalia, Germany Henze in 1953 became resident in Italy initially in Ischia and later made his home in Rome where he is buried. Throughout his career he immersed himself in a variety of compositional approaches both retrospective and strongly progressive. He became acknowledged as a voice of the European avant-garde. Although he composed in many genres his passion for literature and theatre inspired him to become one of Europe’s foremost opera and ballet composers.
Central to his output are his ten symphonies composed between 1947 and 2000. In the mid-1980s I recall attending performances of several of Henze’s challenging yet fascinating symphonies and his Antifonie all played by the BBC Philharmonic. One concert was given under the composer’s own baton and the other was conducted by Elgar Howarth both held at the now demolished BBC Studio 7, New Broadcasting House in Manchester.
After hearing the circumstances of the score’s conception it
came as no surprise that Henze described his “Second Symphony
for large orchestra as “music for a winter's day, utterly grey
and gloomy.” This anguished and serious score written in 1949
during the despairing early years of the Cold War. It convincingly
depicts the character of Germany much of which was in ruins, its people
totally demoralised with an international reputation that had sunk
into the gutter. During this troubled period Henze struggled to build
himself a career as a composer of note and thankfully he was commissioned
by South German Radio to write the symphony. Although strongly tonal
it marks the first time that Henze employed twelve-tone serialism
in a large score. The first movement is in two distinct sections opening
with a Lento - Allegro that immediately evokes a bitterly cold
and austere landscape; underneath floats a faint sense of optimism.
The linked Allegro molto vivace section seems to depict a threatening
and terrifying menace. I was struck by the wide dynamics especially
the extremely thunderous percussion and brass-laden climaxes. Marked
Adagio, the second and final movement inhabits a more grimly
austere setting than that found in its predecessor. Totally devoid
of any optimism Henze’s anguished writing chills right to the
bone. Of particular note are the driving ostinato rhythms and the
powerful concluding climax.
An urgently dramatic performance of the Second Symphony is included in a Deutsche Grammophon set of Henze’s Symphonies Nos. 1-6 conducted by the composer with the Berliner Philharmoniker and the LSO (Sym No. 6). Recorded in 1965/72 the performances have been reissued on a two disc set in 2010 on Brilliant Classics. Released over the years in various guises these same recordings now also form part of a brand new 16 disc set entitled Hans Werner Henze - The Complete Deutsche Grammophon Recordings (0289 479 1522 5).
Henze’s Tenth Symphony for large orchestra (1997/2000) was completed some fifty years after the Second Symphony. The commission came about when Swiss music benefactor Paul Sacher attended a performance Henze’s Ninth Symphony and approached the composer insisting he should immediately undertake a further symphony. Henze was fully aware of the widespread superstition amongst composers about composing ninth symphonies. Despite some misgivings he pressed ahead but it was to be his last symphony. In the booklet notes by Thomas Schultz it is explained that some time prior to the writing of the Tenth Henze had met Sir Simon Rattle who had asked him write a work that reflected his character. Schultz reported in an interview that “Henze recalled with astonishment” to have been asked to write what in effect was a musical depiction of the conductor. Whether or not Henze did attempt to portray any of Rattle’s character in the music is doubtful. He did however attribute descriptive titles to each of the four movements I Ein Sturm (A Storm), II Ein Hymnus (A Hymn), III Ein Tanz (A Dance) and IV Ein Traum, (A Dream) but did not specify a particular programme. The orchestration is large and weighty including six horns, four trumpets, four trombones and four each of the woodwinds, a piano, harp and celesta and a large battery of percussion.The thundering opening movement A Storm is permeated with threat and turmoil. With significant reserves of pent-up energy the music threatens to build to gigantic climaxes before lessening in power. Scored for strings only, movement II A Hymn reveals a contrasting mood to the anguish that has gone before. On the surface this is a sense of relative calmness floating over a disturbing undercurrent. A climax threatens but this quickly fades. Containing no woodwind or strings apart from basses, movement III A Dance has an outlandish and rather curious feel with sporadic bursts of percussion, heavy energy and occasional brass contributions. Henze described the Finale: A Dream as Durch Nacht zum Licht (Through Night into Light). Opening with prominent low woodwind and basses the shadowy writing gradually transforms in character to convey a sense of a celestial body floating upwards towards a brighter more optimistic world. Maybe Henze is providing a glimpse of paradise; somewhat in the manner of Liszt’s Dante Symphony?
The city of Berlin is blessed with a number of exceptional orchestras and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin is one of the finest. Marek Janowski directs exceptionally spacious readings of these two Henze scores with the palpable excellence and dedication of his Berlin players shining through from the first note to the last. Janowski draws a ravishing sound from his orchestra who revel in the intricacies of Henze’s challenging sound-world. With performances so vividly colourful and finely detailed the responsive players can switch flawlessly from the lightest pianissimo to climaxes of red-blooded power. Adding to the appeal of this release is the outstanding sound quality from the Berlin Radio studios, vividly clear and well balanced with adept handling of the wide dynamics. A slight quibble is the remaining time on the disc that could have been filled with another suitable work. Henze’s Fraternité, air pour l'orchestre that I heard last May in Dresden by the Staatskapelle Dresden under Christian Thielemann, would have done nicely.
The cause of Henze and twentieth-century music in general couldn’t be better served than with this stunning Wergo release, the final step in an indispensable series of Henze’s complete symphonies.