About this Recording
8.573289 - HENZE, H.W.: Il Vitalino Raddoppiato / Violin Concerto No. 2 (Sheppard Skærved, Longbow, Parnassus Ensemble, Henze)
English 

Hans Werner Henze (1926–2012)
Violin Concerto No. 2 • Il Vitalino raddoppiato

 

Hans Werner Henze: A Very Personal View

These two recordings, one new and one historic, complete my survey of Hans Werner Henze’s works for violin and orchestra on Naxos. This 1991 performance of the Second Violin Concerto was the last time that I worked with Hans Werner Henze as concerto soloist. A few weeks after this performance, he recorded a TV film of The English Cat with my ensemble in Bavaria; then our public collaboration ended. We lost contact for a few years and then he initiated a correspondence, initially about Telemann. Small-scale collaborations, performances and recordings of chamber and solo works, followed, but not at the previous intensity. Until Henze died in 2012, I had never listened to our ‘final’ performance of the Second Concerto. When I asked the BBC if I might hear it, it turned out that the master was lost. A copy had been lodged, however, in the British Library’s Sound Archive; this release has been mastered from that recording (which needed some restoration). Upon hearing it for the first time, I felt that this recording of Henze as conductor deserved to be made public; voluptuous, red in tooth and claw, the composer extracting a performance of frightening commitment from his ensemble. Recording Il Vitalino raddoppiato, with a different group, in 2013, was a moving experience. The magic which Henze brought to music-making refuses to die, it feels that he is still with us.

In 1987 my friend and fellow student at the Royal Academy of Music, conductor Neil Thomson, told me there was a wonderful Henze work for violin and chamber orchestra, which we should play. I contacted the ever-helpful Sally Groves at Schott London, and she sent the score over to me. I was entranced by this exquisite work, which sang so eloquently of an artist’s relationship to the past. I had to play it: Neil and I planned our concert, and rehearsals began. To our surprise (and my alarm) Henze found out about the event; he appeared at a rehearsal. This meeting initiated our work together. Over the next few years, the topic of Il Vitalino came up many times in conversation, and especially the model which it offered, of dealing with history.

A defining moment, not just for me, but for many of the musicians who can be heard on this recording of the Second Concerto, took place during a rehearsal in Henze’s home town, Gütersloh. Henze was sitting at the back of the room, and from his demeanour, was irritated at what was being done to his music. He strode to the podium, and took the conductor’s place. At first the ensemble failed to understand his gestures; it took a while to accustom ourselves to what precisely he was indicating. Henze’s conducting had little to do with rhythm, but much more to do with moulding of musical shape, his hands like a potter’s working soft clay. After a few moments of confusion, unheard timbres filled the air, and the music floated, it seemed, in a new dimension. The crucial aspect of this was space. He insisted that his music should breathe:

‘One must nurture the caesurae, the breaks, the breaths—if one doesn’t think about these, then the music becomes frantic, boring.’¹

His scores don’t always show these points, but it is clear that they have to be found, and trusted.

Hans Werner Henze’s Second Concerto was written in 1971. This was the year after the ground-breaking music theatre piece, El Cimarrón (also a collaboration with the poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger) and the same year as Prison Song. Henze pointed out that it shared with them “attempts at my style of ‘action music’”. The concerto was commissioned by the philanthropist conductor, Paul Sacher, for the leader of his Zurich ‘Collegium Musicum’, the Australian violinist, Brenton Langbein. His friendship with Langbein inspired the piece. “I admired [him] as much as a fellow human being as I did as a musician. I later gave him a few lessons in composition, wrote my second violin concerto for him… this dear friend died only recently—blown away like a handful of dust.”²

When I first worked on the concerto with Henze in 1989, he was at pains to place it in the liminal space between theatre and concert stages. Earlier, he had written that it “… is a drama, almost but not entirely”. He emphasised that the wildness of the violin playing should be balanced by sobriety in my delivery of the Kurt Friedrich Gödel’s Theorem, which the soloist intones whilst playing the first cadenza:

“In any fixed system of axioms, propositions exist which cannot be proved or disproved unless the system itself is fundamentally inconsistent.”³

This translation of the Theorem, which Henze preferred when playing the concerto ‘in English’ as on this recording (I also did it in Italian and German for him), is not the same as the one which he quotes in his two memoirs for Faber and Faber, Music and Politics (1982) and Bohemian Fifths: An Autobiography (1998). I have no explanation for this, although this version certainly works well with the violin cadenza. In Italian, Henze had me add another pizzicato to match the five-syllable ‘inconsistente’ ending the passage.

This concerto puts the soloist in a position of high risk, threatening the romantic hierarchies of the form, rarely challenged even in the late twentieth century. He noted, “The soloist appears in the light which Romanticism viewed him, as a magician, a sorcerer with a tragic aura.”4 In an interview which the composer gave to me in 1998, he developed this theme:

HWH: ‘The almost impossible is always interesting in music. It’s a bit like a circus act—will she, or will she not, fall from the rope? Will Peter Sheppard get the high note at the very end right? Usually, you know, that last note is played too short [laughter]! PSS: You’re talking about the last note of the Second Concerto, aren’t you? It’s very exposed, almost unplayable—it’s a horrible note! HWH: Maybe it’s a misprint!

At the beginning, the orchestra starts playing and the soloist strides on stage late, dressed as the semi-fictional character ‘Baron Munchausen’. Stories about the very real Hieronymus Carl Friedrich Baron von Münchhausen (1720–1797) first appeared in 1781–1783, in the Vademecum für lustige Leute, penned, maybe, by the Baron himself. Casting the violinist as ‘Munchausen’ fitted Henze’s notion of ‘endangered virtuosity’ well. He wrote that the Baron/violinist becomes “entangled in dialectic, up to the end of the composition, and tries in vain to drag himself out of the swamp by his own forelock,” or that, seen another way, he has to “carry on fiddling with undying optimism”. Not only does the ‘Baron’ arrive late, but is repeatedly prevented from playing by the conductor, a conflict which rages throughout the work, leading to a momentary Putsch, when the violinist grabs the baton.

At my first performance, prepared with the composer, ‘Munchausen-esque’ farce invaded the proceedings. Unknown to me, RAI-TRE, Italian radio, had placed their equipment around the little opera house after the rehearsal. I waited at the back of the hall, in point of fact, in the main foyer, as the orchestra struck up the tutti prior to my entrance. As I swaggered through the stalls, ready to leap up to the stage, I fell over a large microphone stand placed in the middle of my path. Struggling to control my violin, cloak, and tricorn hat, I clambered onto stage, rather more ‘in character’ than I had hoped.

Henze’s use of the Baron in this concerto opened the door to more ‘play’ with classical convention. One form which makes significant appearances in his instrumental music in the 1970s is the ‘minuet and trio’. The Second Concerto is wrapped around just such a movement, in many ways the slightest, but perhaps the most important, the Divertimento. This movement functions like the miniature tri-partite violin concerti in classical serenades and divertimenti. When a Mozart-ean minuet form appears in Henze’s Fourth Quartet (1976), it is also a mini-concerto, for the second violin. Henze spoke often of the importance of Mozart and Haydn in his work. As I was driving through the Italian countryside with him in 1988, he confessed that he was troubled by the prospect of writing a piano quintet: “Every time I sit down to work, I just want to write the Kegelstatt-Trio! Do you think that I might be allowed to just do that?”5

Henze originally planned that the Enzensberger poem which inspired this concerto should be heard, as a disembodied voice, with the other electronic material, through speakers. However early in the process, he decided that the voice should be ‘live’, a riposte to ‘Munchausen’s’/the soloist’s one speech (as Kurt Friedrich Gödel). He introduced a “baritone, whom I imagine as a dead ringer for Papageno. [He] addresses the audience directly, declaiming the text in a mixture of Sprechgesang and chanson.”’6

Henze felt that the original tape material made for the concerto needed revision, that it was too cluttered. Accordingly, in preparation for the 1991 performance heard here, he, I, and composer Roderick Watkins spent a day recording at BBC Maida Vale Studios. From this material Watkins spun a new tape part, creating the integrated version which is described here: ‘‘Counterpoints to his playing are to be heard from other violins, whose passages are alienated through synthesizers.”7

When Henze wrote his autobiography, Bohemian Fifths (published 1998), this ‘clarification’ seemed to have merged itself, in his memory, with the earlier revision of the concerto. He wrote:

“… The tapes now contain only violin music transformed by a computer into curious splashes of colour and ethereal sounds, music with which the soloist … accompanies himself from time to time. They are echoes of, and canons on his own successions of notes. Otherwise there is nothing. The orchestra falls silent. The man is now completely alone in the world.”8

Here Henze is referring to the extraordinary ending of the work, after the soloist has quite literally hauled himself out of the Munchausen’s bog. He, for he is unquestionably the ‘Baron’, fights his way through the vicious onslaughts of orchestra (and conductor), and in a stunning theatrical coup, ends the work, fortissimo, screaming away at the top of the violin… alone.

Unlike Henze’s First and Third Violin Concertos, the two concertante works recorded here are scored for experimental, fluctuating, large chamber groups. This reflects the energy, even turmoil, seething in Henze’s output in the 1970s. In an article published in 1998, I wrote: ‘This is large chamber music, every player active as an individual amongst, and with, other individuals, as distinct from the orchestral use of a large ensemble.’9

1977, the year that Henze finished Il Vitalino raddoppiato, also saw the completion of other Italianate instrumental works, the solo violin Sonata (Tirsi-Mopso-Aristeo), and Aria de la Folia Española. The scoring of the work emphasizes the many chamber groups available within the combination of instruments-small strings, wind and harp. It also established a striking lyric-baroque ‘voice’ for the harp which would later flower in his I Sentimenti Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1982). The wind grouping that Henze chose is unique, a quintet with bass clarinet, making extensive use of cor anglais and piccolo. This, he explained to me, brought rougher colours to the ensemble, and seems influenced by the local amateur wind bande around Montepulciano, where he had begun work in earnest the year before the composition of this work. In this piece, as with a number of others, Henze encouraged me to bring the wind to the front of the stage, opposite the strings, increasing the vivid colours of the score and clarifying the antiphonal effects, wind to strings, with the soloist mediating in the centre. Although the strings are, on paper, laid out in standard sections, they constantly appear in dramatic solo rôles (the leader seems, at one point, determined to push the piece towards the Berg Violin Concerto), and in divided ‘consort’ form. This is very much chamber music.

It is extraordinary that Henze would write such an overtly romantic violin concertante, six years after the acerbic Second Concerto. His autobiography reveals something of his state of mind when he dreamt up the work: “… in the Swabian gardens were the first fruit trees starting to blossom, recalling more pleasant memories of a childhood and adolescence spent in Eastern Westphalia. During my free hours I worked on Il Vitalino, which is also bound up with such memories, and of course, with lilac bushes and one’s very first blushes and sense of fright.’10

Il Vitalino is (like its contemporary Aria de la Folia Española) a ‘chaconne on a chaconne’, based on the famous example by Tomaso Vitali (1663–1745). Henze held the older style performances of this once popular work in great affection. In this, it might be noted that he had a Janus-like tendency to look in two directions at once; his love of the early music embraced the timbres of the emerging ‘historically informed performance’ movement whilst preserving a splendid nostalgia for the ‘romantic’ performance style. The violin part which he used as foundation for roughly half of Il Vitalino was the 1863 one prepared by the virtuoso Ferdinand David (1810–1873) (who premièred Mendelssohn’s Concerto). So the piece dialogues with Vitali, refracted twice, through the scholarly violin tradition of nineteenth-century Leipzig, and through the white heat of the ‘post-Heifetz’ twentieth-century ‘violinism’. Henze presented this ‘original’ in traditional notation, whilst his ‘transformation’ uses his personal notational system of note heads and ‘ties’, so familiar to his performers.

Looking back, much of the time with Henze was spent talking about, or working on the past. He first asked me to help with preparing the materials for a Proms performance of his re-working of Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno di Ulisse. It was in this work, done at the dining table of his and Fausto Moroni’s Knightsbridge home, that I first glimpsed the trust that Henze placed in performers and his insistence that his scores needed to be grappled with at every level, to release the life which must pour from them.

A few years after I first played this piece to Henze, I asked him about the drama of the piece. It was clear to me that there was, at very least, a conversation going on, between the composers. After a short introduction, the soloist enters with the eight-bar theme (accompanied by Henze’s ‘harpsichord replacement’, the harp). This is played twice, then Vitali’s variants begin, each one ‘answered’ by Henze’s ‘own’ eight bars. As the piece progresses, the harmonic ground shifts beneath the ‘original material’, so that it becomes impossible to determine (from the outside) whose music is whose. The climax of this huge single movement work is an extended cadenza; there’s a short orchestral envoi to finish, but the end finds the soloist as much ‘completely alone in the world’ as the Second Concerto.

Henze agreed to tell me the actual ‘plot’ of the piece. He laid it out thus: “Well, I imagined that I arrive at this small Italian town, and I go to the local bar. And, there, there I meet Vitali. So we introduce ourselves, and I buy him a drink. We start talking, him then me, then him, and so on. And the conversation (we are drunk by now) turns into an argument, and then, a fight”—he grinned—“which I win! Now you know. Don’t tell anybody.”11 I failed in this last regard.

Of course, that’s just the armature of the piece. Like all Henze’s music, the layers of drama, invention and meaning are so complex that we performers face happy lifetimes working out our various routes through them. Henze stated, over and over, that there was an intimate relationship between the ‘personal dramaturgy’ of a piece, and the means used to achieve that:

“Whenever I start on a new work I try to establish technical premises (and more or less fictional autobiographical circumstances) on the basis of which it might be possible to attain that state of lightness and purity that could lead to the rediscovery of music as I had dreamed it to be when a child. Thus I am compelled again and again to invent for myself, the music I most wish to hear.’12

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved

¹ Discussion between Henze and PSS, Genova, 1998

² Bohemian Fifths: an Autobiography, Faber & Faber, 1998, p.250

³ Kurt Gödel: Uber formal unentschiedbare Saetze der Principia Matematica und verwandter Systeme, in Monatshefte fuer Mathmatik und Physik, Vol. 38, 1931

4 Music and Politics, Faber & Faber, 1982, p.194

5 Conversation between HWH and PSS, Castel Gandolfo, June 1988

6 BF, p.305

7 Music and Politics, p.124

8 BF, p.305

9 A Henze Symposium, Arc Books, 1997, p.57

10 BF, p.370

11 Conversation between HWH and PSS, London, 1989

12 Music and Politics, p.248


Close the window