Hans Werner Henze

Hans Werner Henze: Drei sinfonische etüden; Quattro poemi; Machtstücke und arien; La selva incantata

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The four selections on this essential volume, all performed by the NDR Sinfonieorchester and conducted by Peter Ruzika, represent distinct periods in composer Hans Werner Henze's long and varied career; they are all turning points, so to speak, beginning with "Drei Sinfonische Etüden" (Three Symphonic Studies). These are the first of his orchestral pieces that employed the use of serial technique in 1955. While they are somewhat representative of the influence of the second Viennese school, they also reflect the work of composer such as Paul Hindemith in their transitory intervals and Darius Milhaud in his colored impressionist period. The restraint of the latter two composers is evident in the first of the studies, where the drama of Webern and middle-period Berg reveal themselves as language possibilities in the second and third, as rhythm and dynamic considerations are treated serially without engaging the systems of "old harmony" at all. The second etude, which was reworked in 1964, is far more dynamic in scope and practical as serial technique to the point of dogmatism. Note the fortissimo in the upper range of the bassoon. The "Quatrro Poemi" ("Four Poems") was composed in 1954. The poems were composed at the same time as an opera by Henze entitled König Hirsch, and each of them reflects tonally and harmonically the narrative sequences from the opera, In fact, as tone poems they almost seem to be cadenzas written for the end of each act and prefiguring, or foreshadowing, the proceeding one. The mood is plaintive, restrained, and even somber, color palettes are narrow and the only real movement, in the second piece, is where percussion makes a brief appearance to keep the narrative of the works static. Their roots sources borrow from the myth in the opera and from German folksongs sung by goat herders at the turn of the century. The most controversial and perhaps satisfying work here is the "Nachstücke und Arien," ("Nocturnes and Arias"). It's premier caused the walkout of Stockhausen, Boulez, and Nono, and caused the program's director to give Henze the cold shoulder. The reason? Here, Henze abandons serialism and embraces the texts of Inge Bachmann as they were written: to be the "mirror of a beautiful past." Given modernism's harsh rigidity at the time, and the piece's hearkening back to periods that echo Bruckner and Mahler, it is no wonder that the trio of "spirits" of the age stalked out after 13 measures. No matter, the work is stunning with a rich palette that doesn't ignore serialism or other techniques, just subdues them in the lush harmonic quilt of the nocturnes. Had the triumvirate stuck around, they would have heard the beautiful evocation of Schöenberg's Pierrot Lunaire and Verklarte Nächte and late Hindemith's song structures. The work was based around an idea for a short opera based on a text by Cocteau, and in its dreamy surreality, where winds and strings hold shimmering glissandi behind the soprano it is easy to hear why. This work is, with the possible exception of members of the New York School, as pure a union of poetry and music as existed in the latter part of the 20th century. The final work is the aria and rondo from König Hirsch, the "La Selva Incantata," ("The Enchanted Forest"). Using the inspiration from Berg's Lulu, he transposed a tenor aria from the fourth scene of second act for orchestra and added music from the third and second scenes -- in that order -- and created an orchestral enchanted forest that for its brevity (11 minutes) is among the composer's most beautiful compositions ever. Movement and color are the hallmarks with dynamic rushes of brass and the swirl of woodwinds sweeping through their brash statements andante before giving way to a lush pianissimo song by the French horn and bassoon together creeping through the silence of the score until they find what they are looking for. When the enchantment occurs, all darkly festive and colored by strings and reeds until bassoon's and brass march through the finale with grim purpose toward an unknown future. As mentioned earlier, this is a stunning introduction to a prolific composer's body of work, brilliantly illustrating via stellar performances and crystalline sound.

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