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Hans Werner HENZE (1924-2012)
Heliogabalus Imperator - Works for Orchestra
Los Caprichos (1963, orch. 1967) [15.27]
Heliogabalus Imperator (1971/72, rev. 1986) [29.01]
Englische Liebeslieder (1984/85) [22.49]
Ouverture zu einem Theater (2012) [4.29]
Anssi Karttunen (cello)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Oliver Knussen
rec. live and studio, February 2014, BBC Maida Vale Studio 1, London
WERGO WER73442 [72.11]

The Wergo label continues its sterling work for the cause of Hans Werner Henze, releasing here an album containing three orchestral scores and a work for cello and orchestra all played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the late Oliver Knussen (1952-2018). Wergo has already recorded all ten Henze symphonies performed by Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under Marek Janowski. The label has also issued other Henze albums including orchestral works with Peter Ruzicka conducting the NDR Sinfonieorchester.

In some circles, Hans Werner Henze was regarded as one of the pre-eminent composers of the 20th century. Born at Gütersloh in Westphalia, Germany, in 1953 Henze became resident in Italy initially in Ischia; at the time of his 75th birthday his home was in Rome. Throughout his career, Henze immersed himself in a variety of compositional approaches both retrospective and strongly progressive, becoming acknowledged as one 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 Henze’s output are his ten symphonies composed between 1947 and 2000. In the mid-1980s I attended several performances of Henze works including his symphonies played by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and at that time found them challenging, sometimes impenetrable, yet always compelling. I clearly recall a couple of those concerts; one was under Henze’s own baton and another conducted by Elgar Howarth, both at Studio 7 in the now demolished New Broadcasting House in Manchester.

The quite magnificently entitled Heliogabalus Imperator - Allegoria per musica (Emperor Heliogabalus - Allegory in music) for large orchestra, the feature work on the album, lasts almost half an hour. Henze completed the score in 1972 to mark the eightieth birthday of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and it was introduced under Georg Solti. Revising the score in 1986, Henze took out the aleatoric passages and the revised version was subsequently introduced in 1989 in Rome. Henze was inspired by Antonin Artaud’s book Heliogabalus or, the Crowned Anarchist and has written a depiction in music, rather like a Richard Strauss symphonic poem, of the Roman emperor known as both Elagabalus and also Heliogabalus, who was murdered together with his mother by his Praetorian Guard. The score is colourful and fascinating and was described by the composer as ‘a series of cinematic, circus-like images of Rome…’ Henze is adept in his musical descriptions of Heliogabalus’ life which include: unrestrained hedonism, a boisterous procession, an ostentatious ceremony, an amatory celebration to honour the god Baal and his ultimate slaying.

Written in 1963 and later orchestrated, Los Caprichos, a fantasia for orchestra, was premièred in 1967 by the Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester under Christoph von Dohnányi at Duisburg. Although not a programmatic score, it is meditations based on Goya’s set of etchings published in 1799 that, according to Thomas Schulz, were for their time ‘most scathingly satirical images.’ Designed in nine sections, Los Caprichos comprises of an introduction, theme and set of seven variations. I relish the contrasting sound-worlds of these compelling short pieces, which range from evoking a frosty winter’s morning (I), to a nocturnal atmosphere imbued with a sense of mystery (IV), to an initially hostile, martial quality (VII).

The Englische Liebeslieder - Canzoni d'Amore Ingesi (English Love Songs) for cello and orchestra is a most engaging work sometimes referred to as a grand romance. Henze based the score on English poems from ‘different epochs’: James Joyce, Robert Graves, Shakespeare et al. Originally titled Sieben Liebeslieder (Seven Love Songs) and cast in seven sections, its premiere was given by Heinrich Schiff and the Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester in Cologne in 1986. In 1991 Henze removed the original fifth section to create a six section work titled Liebeslieder and in 1998 further altered the name to the Englische Liebeslieder which is performed here. Focusing on ‘beautiful aspects of love’, the grand romance uses different meters and portrays a varied range of colours and feelings from the eeriness of the opening movement, the impetuosity of the Tango to the introspection of the Sonnet. Soloist Anssi Karttunen provides a persuasive level of detail and focus in a performance of cool beauty.

The concluding work on the album Henze’s Ouverture zu einem Theater was commissioned by the Deutsche Oper Berlin to celebrate its one hundredth anniversary. This is Henze’s final work that was premièred in 2012 although he wasn’t able to attend and died only seven days after. Scored for large orchestra it’s an ebullient work full of life in which one feels that Henze is enthusiastically celebrating the compelling glories of the theatre through his writing.

One senses that the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Oliver Knussen is impeccably prepared; it is very much in tune with Henze’s sound world and provides convincing playing throughout. Knussen demonstrates his assurance and adroitness in the high drama and complexity of the music, with its often-unsettling undercurrents, shifting blocks of sound, contrasting images, bustling activity, scurrying woodwind figures, forward momentum and frequently congested sound-world. For me, the key to these often complex scores is to identify, concentrate upon and relish hearing what cellist Anssi Karttunen describes as the ‘beautiful and delicate layers that were hiding under the mass of the music’.

All the works were recorded for radio broadcast at BBC Maida Vale Studio 1, London. It seems that the recordings were made under both live and studio conditions, although I don’t know which works are which as the BBC haven’t provided clarification. Regarding those recorded live, I wasn’t concerned by any unwanted sound on any track and applause has been removed. Adding to the desirability of this album is the helpful and interesting essay by Thomas Schulz.

These are first-class performances of four fascinating and compelling examples of Henze’s characteristic sound-world. Certainly, Henze’s Heliogabalus Imperator is a quite remarkable work.

Michael Cookson
Previous review: Paul Corfield Godfrey

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