Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

James H. North
Fanfare, April 2007

Although he had already written two other concerted pieces, the 1948 Violin Concerto No. 1 was Henze's first work for full symphony orchestra. Its idiom goes back even further, to Berg and Bartók. The yearning spirit of the Berg Violin Concerto and the shiny athleticism of Bartók's Second are here in force. A long opening movement ranges between Largamente and Allegro molto, between heart-felt expression and explosive fireworks-it could be a complete concerto in itself. There follow three more conventional movements, fast, slow, and an all-encompassing finale.

This is the concerto's third recording, and it appears to grow in stature with each performance. A 1968 recording led by the composer emphasized its violent energy, and a recent (Fanfare 29:1) MDG recording probed the soul of the music. This performance succeeds in combining the best of both worlds. Violinist Sheppard Skærved fiddles with élan, and Lydon-Gee's Saarbrücken orchestra plays with blazing confidence. Naxos's recorded sound is not as warm as MDG's, but it is suitably less reverberant. This remarkable work by a 22-year-old composer is realized to perfection.

Henze's Third Concerto forgoes Classical structure for dramatic characterization, as specified by its subtitle: "Three portraits from the novel Doktor Faustus by Thomas Mann." The three long movements are titled "Esmerelda," "Das Kind Echo," and "Rudi S.” After the complex, difficult Second Concerto (1971), the Third (1997) returns to Henze's more lyrical early style. Its first recording appeared recently on that MDG disc. The differences are startling: the concerto now runs 33:24 instead of 22:26. The notes to the MDG set state that Henze revised the work in 2002, but it presents the earlier version. In the cited review, I remarked that "the solo violin dominates the piece and plays many cadenzas". Naxos offers the 2002 revision, in which the solo violin is even more prominent. Both performances are excellent.

The five Night Pieces for violin and piano (1990) were written for these performers. They are highly concentrated miniatures, recalling Berg in their intensity and Webern in their brevity. The performances are superbly executed and bask in an aura of authority. Naxos's recording is excellent, but puts the listener almost inside the piano.

This is the third all-Henze disc I have reviewed this week, so it seems a good moment to note that performances of his music are getting better and better. As with Schoenberg, it took nearly half a century for performers to get the hang of a new and unique style. Even many of the early-stereo Deutsche Grammophon LPs that were led or supervised by the composer now sound stiff in comparison to recent performances. The First Violin Concerto is a case in point.

American Record Guide, December 2006

This release follows on the heels of last year's MDG recording of all three Henze violin concertos (Nov/Dec 2005). The second is a vaguely political and overtly theatrical work; the other two are often said to be the closest Henze comes to the pure abstraction of absolute music. The first dates from 1948, when Henze was barely 21, and its lyrical vastness and confident use of Bergian dissonance belie the composer's youth to an astonishing degree. The third appeared nearly half a century later (1997) and sketches in three movements the important supporting characters from Mann's Doktor Faustus: the hero Leverkühn's syphilitic lover Esmeralda; his innocent nephew nicknamed "Echo", felled by meningitis; and his closest friend, the violinist Rudi Schwerdtfeger.

Overall, this performance is much, much better, but MDG's recording is superior to Naxos's boxy, muddy sound. Lyndon-Gee softens the young Henze's sharp elbows and takes fantastically slow tempos in the later work­half again as long as the MDG recording! Skaerved, a close associate of Henze, has an intense, throaty tone and plays with considerable bravura and maturity.

Naxos fills out the disc with a set of five 'night pieces" for violin and piano that was written for these performers in 1990. They are refreshingly concise for Henze, lasting one to three minutes each, with nary a wasted note. Skaerved and Shorr have clearly been living with them for long enough to understand them perfectly. And as a bonus, the sound is better for these pieces, though quite artificial.

Art Lange
Fanfare, November 2006

Hans Werner Henze’s First and Third Violin Concertos…lyrical scores share a still-vital modernist perspective.

To read the complete review, please visit Fanfare online.

Julie Williams
MusicWeb International, October 2006

This is another offering from the broadening Naxos contemporary repertoire stable which takes in the specially commissioned string quartet series from Peter Maxwell Davies. Henze has not been neglected; there is a companion volume to this disc, devoted to Henze’s guitar music.

The two violin concertos given here are separated by just over fifty years. One is a youthful but remarkably assured work from the composer's early years, the other a mature development of a recognisably similar artistic voice. The movement titles of the Third come from Thomas Mann's novel Dr Faustus. There are helpful introductory notes written by the conductor.

The sound-world of these works is lean and muscular, recognisable from the composer's middle symphonies particularly. It is ascetic and complex, one of Henze's closest influences being Stravinsky. Although they might be considered challenging listening by anyone except contemporary music aficionados, they are both beautiful and intellectually stimulating and repay the listener's effort with dividends.

Henze is perhaps best known for his personal history. He was a reluctant German conscript held by the British at North Sea Camp as an enemy alien. He became an outspoken critic of his native country, choosing after the war to make his home in Rome and to champion the Left; his sixth symphony was premiered in Cuba to trade union members. He is a prolific composer, writing in a diverse range of forms - symphonies, concertos, chamber music, opera and other vocal works.

The Night Pieces are here performed by their dedicatees, who premiered them at London's Purcell Room. They were written shortly after the Viola Sonata. The Shepherd Songs make a punning reference to the name of the violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved, a long-time collaborator of the composer and for whom they were written. Here he introduces them in the covering notes.

In short: high quality playing of very original and stimulating music all at the usual bargain price. The recording quality is very creditable too.

Peter Quantrill
The Strad, September 2006

Henze’s musical gifts and socio-political ideals have always directed him towards musical individuation: even the more sprawling of his orchestral works abound in soloistic virtuosity, and his operas and concertos all reveal a concern for the real protagonist rather than highfalutin abstracts. That he has always valued a strong sense of dramatic narrative is clear from the First Violin Concerto. It was written in 1946 — Henze was all of 21 — but it is in no sense an apprentice work. The four movements are shot through with both his appreciation of Berg and Stravinsky and the rigour of his study with Wolfgang Fortner, which barely reins in the concerto’s overall extroversion and the soloist’s many opportunities to rhapsodise. Peter Sheppard Skaerved’s big-boned, strong playing is given an appropriately forward balance by the engineers: no way is this soloist primus inter pares.

Cadenzas litter the Third Violin Concerto (1997) to an even greater degree. The feeling for melody is still strong, but there is a blurry quality to the harmony and a thicker orchestration that is common to Henze’s later works. Sheppard Skaerved does not enjoy so advantageous a balance with the orchestra, and in the long slow movement I sense a lack of momentum. The programme may be partly to blame: the conceit is that Henze has brought to life the violin concerto composed by Adrian Leverkühn, the syphilitic genius of Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus. Those who have read the novel will readily identify the characters who inspire each of the three movements — the sultry über-whore Esmeralda, the doomed child Nepo and Leverkühn’s dangerously brilliant pet violinist Rudi — and may find it too hard to detach one medium from the other.

The five understated miniatures that make up the Night Pieces (1990) are much less effusive and more successful examples of Henze’s late style; Sheppard Skaerved is ably partnered by Aaron Shorr in finding the nuance of each.

Anne Midgette
The New York Times, July 2006

Raw and Dark Contemporary Works

The music world can be hard on its grand old men. Hans Werner Henze, the German composer, was once a familiar name on these shores; but his 80th birthday this year, celebrated throughout Europe, is passing most American stages by. So a recent release of his first large-scale orchestral work, the Violin Concerto No. 1 (written at 20), paired with the Third Concerto, from 1997, provides not only an overview of way stations in a significant output but also a reminder of a composer one might expect to hear more of.

He certainly sounds just fine here, in robust recordings that play up the inherent expressiveness of his music. Mr. Henze has always been a maverick: a German with Communist leanings who rejected his country (he has spent most of his adult life in Italy) as well as its often hyperintellectual approach to music. In the First Concerto the young composer plunges into music up to his elbows, making glorious loud noises, playing with martial percussion like a jovial Shostakovich, then drawing back into lyrical, elegiac keening. The communication is a little raw, but the musical force is already present. The Third Concerto is more sophisticated, more restrained, more allusive and altogether richer, but it shows the same relish and energy; it has simply matured the discourse.

Peter Sheppard Skaerved, a new-music specialist, clearly responds to the music’s communicative desires; it now has a conversational tone, now sings with the breathiness of a very human voice. Aaron Shorr, a fluid pianist, joins him in a sequence of short and sometimes brittle pieces (brittle, at least, in Mr. Sheppard Skaerved’s reading) that Mr. Henze wrote for them in 1990.

Dominy Clements
MusicWeb International, July 2006

It must have been 1986 when, believe it or not, I had lunch with Hans Werner Henze. A student at the RAM, I was member of the last of a sequence of scruffy bunches of composition students to take masterclasses with the great man at a mews flat just over the road from Harrod’s. The great man regularly took breaks to stand and partake of the fresh air wafting in from an open pair of French windows. It turned out that he and some friends had enjoyed some incredible quantity of wine the evening before, and so it wasn’t long before – much to my delight – we were joining the great man in a ‘hair of the dog’ gin and tonic before, as the last group of the day, being invited to stay for lunch. With our collectively lamentable ignorance I’m afraid this unforgettable day is forever stamped with an indelible vacuity of insightful anecdote. I seem to remember my student colleagues were somewhat dismissive of my quasi-minimal attempts of the time, but the great man was interested and sympathetic - I had trouble getting performances even then - and as a result he can do no wrong for this reviewer.

Fortunately for me the great man has become even greater, and as the new century progresses, it is increasingly easier to measure Henze’s stature as a composer for our times. Having experienced the nightmare of war as a youth he matured swiftly, and the first Violin Concerto sounds as fresh and convincing now as it must have sounded modern and avant-garde in its day. Henze admits to having had great difficulties with the work, but every aspect of it is impressively satisfying as a whole: the orchestration is varied and colourful, the solo violin part idiomatic and laden with emotionally charged meaning. This is no superficially virtuoso concerto, but a deeply personal statement on the ugliness of war and the triumph of sensitivity and the human spirit conveyed by some beautiful lines in the solo violin.

Peter Sheppard Skærved has a long association with Henze’s work, and his playing is completely at home in all of the pieces on this disc. His technical mastery and deep understanding of the composer’s world transmit a sense of confidence - the Dutch word ‘vanzelfsprekend’ sums this up - which should remove many difficulties for the listener. To be sure, this music will not be everybody’s cup of tea, but educating the ear to accept the language of another can be a joyous experience, and recordings such as this provide an ideal opportunity for widening one’s horizons.

The third Violin Concerto, written fifty years after the first, sits easily with its youthful partner on this disc. Henze’s musical language has always maintained an uncompromising individuality, and this is apparent in both works. The third concerto does however bristle with allusions to composers on whose shoulders Henze is standing – continuing an ancient and traditional musical form in a completely modern context. Alban Berg is one of the most recognisable references. I also sense a fleeting relationship with Tippett or Britten at some moments, and momentary glimpses, like the flash of a camera, reveal Beethoven, Wagner, Corelli and even Bach as Henze’s playmates in corners of this fascinating work.

The concerto has Thomas Mann’s epic Dr. Faustus as its starting point, and each movement refers to in some way to the imaginary violin concerto of Adrian Leverkühn which appears, described in detail in the novel. Henze makes no attempt to follow the analysis of the piece as it appears in the book, but each movement has a title which clearly alludes to characters in the story. Henze’s engagement with German literature is an ongoing theme in his work, and the result here is a magnificently romantic monument to the passions and tragedies which occupied those true giants of the arts – Goethe, Mann, Beethoven, Mahler. The symphonic orchestra is enriched with tuned percussion, piano, celesta, harp – and Henze is fully awake to the associations which each instrument conjures.

The ‘filler’ is a set of ‘Five Night Pieces,’ written especially for Peter Sheppard Skærved and Aaron Shorr. Kept awake by rowdy locals at a Caribbean holiday location, Henze ended up working on these ‘Notturni’ as a way to use those hours of insomnia productively. These are spare or concise, atmospheric or persuasively penetrating creations, with an almost Webernesque sense of serialism in places. Henze slyly refers to the violinist’s name in two movements titled Hirtenlieder or Shepherd’s song, but these pieces are by no means bagatelle miniatures.

Naxos once again ticks all of the boxes with this release. Performances and recordings are top notch, and Naxos has something of a coup with both dedicatees of the Fünf Nachtstücke on board. The Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra under Christopher Lyndon-Gee is committed and expert, and I can think of no complaints with any aspect of this production. Violin concertos are an attractive proposition, and while listeners shouldn’t expect the easy ride of a Samuel Barber or transparent filigree of a Dutilleux, they can count on having some seriously emotional meat on the bones of this traditional form. G&Ts all round!

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group