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CLASSICAL  March 2007

CLASSICAL March 2007

Subject:

Henze - Works for Violin

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 6 Mar 2007 08:52:11 -0600

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (86 lines)

Hans Werner Henze

*  Violin Concerto No. 1 (1946)
*  Violin Concerto No. 3 (1997)
*  5 Night-Pieces (1990)

Peter Sheppard Skaerved (violin); Aaron Shorr (piano);
Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra/Christopher Lyndon-Gee
Naxos 8.557738 Total time: 69:30

Summary for the Busy Executive: Yawn.

Along with Stockhausen, Hans Werner Henze became the most
internationally-prominent German composer in the years immediately
following World War II.  Interest in his work peaked during the Sixties
and Seventies, when (among other things) Deutsche Grammophon adopted him
as its house composer with a series devoted to his work, as CBS had done
for Copland and Stravinsky and Decca for Britten.  Part of this attention
may have come from the Marxist political component in Henze's work,
although Henze never struck me as an especially political thinker, unlike
someone like Hanns Eisler or even Luigi Dallapiccola.  I thought of him
as a fellow with his heart in the right place.  That is, the message is
more ethical than political.  Come to think of it, I'd say the same about
Eisler and Dallapiccola.  Furthermore, this view really does ignore
Henze's music -- in other words, what we should judge a composer by --
for some extra-musical message.  Henze has plenty of "abstract" pieces
-- concerti, symphonies, and so on, whose source of inspiration isn't
necessarily political.  Nevertheless, that close attention waned as time
went by.  The interest of new-music fans went elsewhere: minimalism,
Holy Minimalism, post-modernism, the Baltic, a younger generation of
German composers, and so on.  Today, Henze, although he hasn't lived in
his native country since the early Fifties, has become the Grand Old Man
of modern German music, apparently by default.

When it comes to Henze's music, I'm a hard sell.  I can certainly
understand the high regard in which others have held him.  The music
sounds beautiful -- ravishing new sonorities, clear textures, easy-to-follow
narratives.  Hindemith and Schoenberg seem to meet in Henze.  However,
I feel as if I'm touching some handsome, highly-polished, smooth metal
sculpture.  There's a sensuousness to it, but also a chill.  Everything
seems nicely calculated.  The music almost never gets inside me.

The compositional maturity of the first violin concerto impresses me
the most.  Henze wrote it at twenty, but you wouldn't be surprised if
it came from someone thirty years older.  The first movement poses the
most problems: it takes a while for it to get going, but Henze does
manage to give a fine second half.  The second movement, a brief scherzo,
supposedly came from the composer's experiences in the Second World War,
but it never really cuts loose and comes across as genteel -- a modern
equivalent of Adam's "Dance of the Nixies" from Giselle.  I like the
slow third movement best, since I manage to really connect for the first
time.  Large stretches of the finale work to great effect, but for me
the movement as a whole never really comes together.

The third concerto, written fifty years later, has its source of
inspiration in Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus.  Each of its three movements
stems from a character in the novel: Esmeralda, the prostitute; Nepo/"Echo",
the hero's nephew; and Rudi, the virtuoso.  Obviously, the composer has
injected a programmatic element into the score, but can one enjoy the
work without knowing the novel?  After all, you can love Strauss's
Eulenspiegel without really knowing anything about the "plot." In either
case, others may find the movements evocative.  You have to vibrate more
closely to the composer's wavelength than I.  As for its musical virtues,
again I leave it to others.  I hear it as a sack of generic Schmerz and
Angst.  Many composers could have, and indeed have, written something
similar.  The last remark also applies to the five nocturnes, a compendium
of serial cliches.  Far more engaging is the Pettersson second violin
concerto -- just as difficult, but white-hot with inspiration.

The performances I would describe as "committed" rather than "wonderful."
In the third concerto especially, the orchestra plays muddy.  Skaerved
gets through the music (hard violin tone) without throwing any special
light on it.  Moreover, one listens in vain for a transforming moment,
something that keeps you from lapsing into coma.  Points to Naxos for
releasing this at all, if only for the first concerto, but you wish the
project had turned out better.  It may make you wonder what all the fuss
over Henze was about.

Steve Schwartz

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