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Stephen Habington
Classical Music Sentinel, October 2009

The epilogue to Matthew Boyden’s Richard Strauss (London 1999) opens with the statement, “Richard Strauss was the last purely German composer.” And Boyden goes on: “The bitter irony of German music after Strauss’s death was that while he had been gifted with a musical language intelligible to, and popular with, the majority, it was at no point used to express anything to which the majority might tenably have related. Conversely, the composer Hans Werner Henze and his contemporaries were animated by ethical questions of social and political relevance which they failed to express in music that the majority might enjoy.”

And now we may perceive another irony of German music. Just nine years after Boyden’s summary appraisal, Henze has had the mantle of, ‘Grand Old Man of German Music’ thrust upon him. Having chain-smoked his way to octogenarian status and despite the fact that he has been in self-imposed exile for the past fifty-five years, it is now a continental musical case of Henze über alles. A concise explanation of how and why this came to pass can be found in the disc under consideration here. Markus Stenze presents a selection of the composer’s output between 1957 and 1993. This is an ideal introduction for collectors previously unacquainted with Henze and one which will also allow dedicated admirers to complete the recorded cycle (from various sources) of his ten symphonies.

If enough of his music is given due and careful attention, a few facts about Hans Werner Henze’s compositional abilities can be deduced. First: he can create music in any style that takes his fancy. Second: Henze composes with the same fierce sincerity with which he expressed (and demonstrated) his convictions on social and political issues. There is no scope for prevarication in either his ideals or his scores. Third: he has a marvelously subtle sense of humour. And fourth: the melody is the man and the man is the melody. The biographical element is as omnipresent with Henze as it was with Strauss.

Nachtstücke und Arien represented the composer’s withdrawal from Darmstadt dodecaphony. Pierre Boulez and Karlheinze Stockhausen both walked out of the first performance as soon as they realized that the opening horn cantilena was sublimely beautiful music. Two arias (text provided without translation) are inserted into a night music triad. It is a ravishing composition with a core of great tensile strength. Die Bassarids was written for the Salzburg Festival of 1966. Four decades later, Christoph von Dohnányi persuaded Henze to prepare an orchestral suite from the score. The result is the equivalent of a four-movement symphony. And it is a symphony of quality, too. The latest composition featured here is Symphony No 8 which was first performed in 1993. Henze took his inspiration from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the three movements are musical illustrations of key scenes in the play. After hearing the formal rigors of his Seventh and the ‘sound and fury … signifying something’ of the Tenth, it is an approachable and rewarding work.

Markus Stenze has become a leading exponent of the music of HWH. He draws superb performances from the Cologne orchestra. Henze needs to be heard and his unique genius recognized and Stenze succeeds admirably. Sound quality is decent.

Guy Rickards
Gramophone, November 2008

Henze’s Shakespearean Eighth resurfaces to plug an important gap

The three pieces on this disc range across the majority of Henze’s mature career, from 1957 to 2005. Earliest is Nachtstücke und Arien, a vocal-and-orchestral diptych setting poems by Ingeborg Bachmann, perhaps the dearest of Henze’s early collaborators, framed and separated by three orchestral “night pieces”. Henze had written to Bachmann two years before about how he wished “to write the most beautiful contemporary music” and in this rapt score he took a huge step towards that aim. So much so, indeed, that it prompted Boulez, Nono and Stockhausen to stage a petulant walk-out at the premiere. Claudia Barainsky sings beautifully…The Adagio, Fuge und Mänadentanz is the most recent item, premiered in 2005 but extracted from Henze’s finest opera, The Bassarids (1966). The opera was premiered under Christoph von Dohnányi who, 39 years later, requested this 25-minute suite and conducted its first performance. Drawn from the third of the opera’s four acts (or movements: it is constructed as a two-hour symphony in four movements), it forms a compellingly satisfying whole.

So too, though, does the major item here, the Eighth Symphony, commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and premiered by them in 1993. Inspired by three scenes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Eighth is—like Beethoven’s and Vaughan Williams’s—something of a relaxation between the mightier edifices of the Seventh and Ninth but an utter delight from first to last. The Gürzenich Orchestra play with real inspiration under Stenz’s intelligent direction. Recommended., October 2008

The three works conducted by Markus Stenz all have theatrical origins or associations. Suite from “Die Bassariden” is drawn from Henze’s 1966 opera (libretto by W.H. Auden) based on Euripides’ The Bacchae (the name Bassariden or Bassarids comes from the Roman God Bacchus, equivalent to the Greek Dionysus: Bacchus often wore a fox-skin or bassaris). This is a tragic opera in which the god takes revenge on mortals who have doubted his power, and Henze’s music is appropriately dark and, in the dance of Dionysus’ followers the Maenads, frenzied. Nachstücke und Arien dates to 1957 and is a five-movement work, with three orchestral pieces and two settings of poems by Ingeborg Bachmann, sung with feeling by lyric soprano Claudia Barainsky. The work is heavier and more portentous than Henze’s Symphony No. 8, whose genesis is Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The symphony’s first movement makes deliberate reference to Mendelssohn’s music for the play; the second represents instrumentally the dialogue between magic-addled Titania and the mortal Bottom; and it is only in the finale, inspired by Puck’s epilogue to the play, that the 12-note theme on which the prior movements are based is finally revealed. This symphony was completed in 1993, and Henze, who is now 82, has continued and is continuing to compose; in fact, he has already written two further symphonies. The Eighth has been unavailable in recorded form for some time. Henze’s fans will welcome its return in such a fine performance.

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