El Cimarrón, "recital for four musicians," was among the first of the explicitly political works that dominated Henze's output from the late 1960s through the mid-'70s. Based on the life story of Esteban Montejo, an escaped slave in Cuba born in 1860 (who the composer met when he was 105), the work was completed in 1970 and premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival. A baritone speaks and sings the narrative, frequently in Sprechstimme or extended vocal techniques. A flutist playing a variety of flutes, a guitarist, and a percussionist provide the accompaniment, all also vocalizing at some points. The ensemble lends itself to a delicate sound that's a counterintuitive accompaniment to the brutality of the story; it takes a while to adjust to the disconnect between the music and the text, but within a few movements, the ear adjusts to the spareness of the instrumentation and is able to hear the very subtle means Henze uses to evoke a soundworld that corresponds to the text. Some of the 15 movements seem to have scant musical content or meaning apart from the narration, but others, such as "Women," are fully integrated with the text and have a compelling musical logic as well. Since El Cimarrón is intended as a theater piece, it may well be that the less musically satisfying movements may reveal an effectiveness on-stage that isn't obvious in a purely auditory experience. (That phenomenon is surprisingly common in Henze's stage works: music that seems to lack much inherent interest can be astonishingly powerful when experienced as part of the integrated dramatic presentation he intended.)
The work was written in Spanish, but this performance uses an English translation by Christopher Keene. El Cimarrón Ensemble is a new music group established to perform this piece, and its interpretation has the composer's blessing and commendation. The ensemble has a dramatic intensity that sustains interest throughout the work's 95-minute length. The bulk of responsibility falls on vocalist Angelo de Leonardis, who fully rises to the work's extreme musical and dramatic requirements. (The part makes demands comparable to Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King.) It requires some adjustment to accept de Leonardis' Italian accent in the English text and it's almost possible to imagine it as a regional variant of a Spanish accent. Flutist Gundl Aggermann, guitarist Christina Schorn, and percussionist Ivan Mancinelli play with sensitivity and energy. Michael Kerstan, the group's stage director, deserves credit for the dramatic momentum of the performance. Wergo's sound is bright, atmospheric, and intimate.