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Hans Werner HENZE (1926-2012)
Sonatina for Violin and Piano (from the opera Pollicino) (1979) [8:50]
Solo Violin Sonata (1977) [18:30]
Sonata for Violin and Piano (1946) [15:09]
Für Manfred, for solo violin (1989) [2:21]
Peter Doll zum Abschied, for solo violin (1999) [3:05]
Sonata for Viola and Piano (1979) [20:37]
Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin and viola)
Roderick Chadwick (piano)
rec. 2016, Parish Church of St George, Harrow; St John the Baptist, Aldbury, UK.
NAXOS 8.573886 [68:41]

In late November 1994 I managed the shop at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. I invited a potential girlfriend there for a date; she liked theatre but not classical music. We dined (at Pizza Hut I think) and then attended a high profile concert at the Town Hall which included an unprecedented opportunity to hear my favourite Henze piece, Tristan, in the flesh. I remember it being oppressively warm in the hall; I also recall that one of the BBC Philharmonic trumpet players appeared to pass out during the performance – indeed he seemed to fall down the steep rake of the steps at the back of the hall. Surreally, the performance continued as if nothing had happened. It was patently obvious Henze’s music was less than conducive for a first date and this rather undermined my enjoyment of the experience. Frankly, it was one of those situations where one wanted the ground to open up and consume one, as it had similarly obliged the unfortunate brass player. It might seem extraordinary, therefore that these days my enthusiasm for Henze remains undimmed, and is if anything even more profound. It’s possibly even more bewildering that 24 years on that same girlfriend is currently sat next to me on our sofa, knitting relentlessly as I compile this review, having foolishly spent the last 17 years as my wife.

If anything, while this impressive Naxos disc of string sonatas and miniatures with and without piano accompaniment reinforces the view that Henze, even at his most lyrical, is never easy listening, it is also invites the notion that his chamber works are somehow more approachable than his lusher, large-scale fare due to their leaner textures and more precise expressivity. These pieces span more than half a century, from the emotional catharsis implicit in his 1946 Violin Sonata (with piano) to the thorny miniatures for violin alone conceived as memorials for recently passed colleagues.

Peter Sheppard Skærved’s credentials in this repertoire are beyond question. He studied these works with the composer and recorded the revised version of the solo Violin Sonata back in the late 1990s. He has provided (also for Naxos) searching, technically unassailable accounts of Henze’s three very different Violin Concertos. He has also contributed superbly concise and very personal analyses of all the works on this disc in his notes– which in my view are a perfect template for booklets accompanying discs of new music – please take note Kairos, Aeon and others! Most importantly though his playing is again remarkable, while in Roderick Chadwick he has found a sensitive and sympathetic partner. Moreover the detailed recording projects a pleasing warmth throughout, which is not necessarily a given on other discs of this composer’s music.

Skærved points out that the 1946 Violin Sonata was put together during the poverty-stricken aftermath of the fall of the Third Reich, and seems to reflect a period of study with the almost forgotten composer Wolfgang Fortner. Henze had recently made a piano reduction of Fortner’s Violin Concerto, and stylistically the work carries the influence of this experience. Structurally it also pre-echoes Henze’s own first concerto as both incorporate a four movement structure; while in both cases the third panel is suffused with cold, sardonic humour. The skittish, opening Prelude sounds rather Stravinskian, while the busy piano part is in no way secondary. The soft piano chords that open the Nocturne are wistful and almost romantic, while the violin’s subsequent cantilena seems similarly yearning. The tiny Intermezzo is darkly impish and mysterious, Skærved drawing some ravishing colours from his instrument, while the Finale begins in an acerbic mood, which is at odds with the limpid, piano-led second subject. The Sonata receives consummate advocacy from Skærved and Chadwick; whilst early Henze has perhaps become unfashionable this work is completely underappreciated and should be much better-known.

Fast-forward three decades; the disc also presents three substantial string works from the late 1970s. The earliest is the Sonata for solo violin, which Sheppard presents here in his preferred, uncut, original form, under a deal he apparently struck in with Henze two decades ago, when he toured and recorded the composer’s heavily cut revised version. It’s a theatrical piece and comprises three character portraits of figures from the 15th century Italian poet Poliziano’s version of the Orpheus myth (the poet was born in Henze’s beloved Montepulciano). This is the spikier, more confrontational Henze. The music of the first two movements (Tirsi and Mopso) is rather jagged, staccato and stop-start. Most of the drama in the work is shoe-horned into the restless and tentative finale Aristeo which concludes with a characteristic Henzean ‘scream’. The virtuosity required here is massive, but the fluency of Skærved’s playing ensures that listening is always fascinating, and the music (to my ears at least) is far from disagreeable. The warmth of the recording is central to this – the Naxos engineer Jonathan Haskell must therefore take some of the credit.

In 1979 Henze produced the childrens’ opera Pollicino, an unusual confection comprising various numbers for different solo instruments, duos and other recorder-led ensembles; the composer determined that some of these could be produced in stand-alone contexts. The Sonatina for violin with piano is drawn from this and consists of three brief movements which Skærved suggests can be seen as serenade-like interludes providing ‘pauses for thought’ during the opera; the violin part in the work represents the Grandmother character who acts simultaneously as storyteller and moral compass. This music is considerably more accessible than the solo Sonata, lyrical and at times crepuscular, such as in the endless, quiet unison at the end of the first movement. The Sonatina projects a rather Bergian cut to these ears; there’s more depth of feeling here than is perhaps implied by the word Sonatina.

In the same year Henze composed his Viola Sonata for the former Arditti Quartet violist Garth Knox. Cast in a single movement, it’s both technically challenging and emotionally draining, for performers and listeners alike. In an extensive analysis of the work on his own website Skærved notes a similarity in the rising and falling figure with which the piece starts with the opening bars of Elgar’s Violin Concerto of all things; he notes that Henze’s Anglophile sensibilities may have had, on a subconscious level at least, some influence over the gesture. But as this essay confirms, there was a lot going on in Henze’s life at the time, and I have to say I struggle to find any such spirit elsewhere in this work. What I do hear though is the palpably vocal, singing quality of the viola line, which is wonderfully projected by Skærved. It turns out to be a riveting performance of what by any Henze enthusiast’s judgement is a major work, and it’s certainly the outstanding piece in this collection. Holistically speaking the sonata inhabits a huge and kaleidoscopic emotional terrain. While it’s eventful and colourful to my ears some episodes convey a strangely repressed character. Skærved draws a wealth of fascinating sounds from his instrument – at times the work seems almost three-dimensionally graspable, and then almost imperceptibly it turns on a sixpence and changes direction completely. To tell the truth I was bewitched by this sonata. I suspect those who are attracted by the sound of the viola and are perhaps discouraged by Henze’s ‘challenging’ reputation will love it too. Roderick Chadwick’s skilled, discreet accompaniment is both generous to his partner and perfectly judged.

The disc is completed by two brief works for solo violin which Henze wrote as memorials for artistic collaborators and associates. Für Manfred from 1989 marks the passing of writer and television director Manfred Gräter. This delicately-spun, deeply thought yet complex miniature ends with an allusion to Berg’s famous quotation of the Bach chorale Es ist genug in his Violin Concerto. The later Peter Doll zum Abschied commemorates the passing of the theatre director who was the dedicatee of Henze’s opera ‘The English Cat’. It is serious, sincere and impressively succinct. Skærved’s account radiates honesty, refinement and a deep reverence for Henze’s art.

Ultimately, the playing and production on this disc are outstanding, and while those who ‘get’ Henze will probably have acquired the disc before they even read these words, I truly hope that those who wouldn’t normally ‘go there’ will be persuaded to give this a try. It was perhaps an optimistic sign that my wife was still knitting away on the same sofa when the disc finished its first play; more encouraging still that 48 hours later divorce papers have not as yet been served.

Richard Hanlon



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