Sunday 10 May 2015

Naxos release Hans Werner Henze’s 1996 BBC recording of his Violin Concerto No. 2 coupled with a new recording of Il Vitalino raddoppiato in authoritative performances with Peter Sheppard Skærved as soloist

When Hans Werner Henze died in 2012 he left behind an extraordinary body of compositions embracing full-scale grand opera, chamber opera, comic opera, ballets, concert works, radio works, incidental music to stage plays and films and other theatrical forms. He wrote a large number of concert works including ten symphonies, numerous concertos and other orchestral works, five string quartets and other chamber, instrumental and vocal pieces.

He was born in Gütersloh, North Rhine-Westphalia, the eldest of six children to Margarete Henze and her teacher husband, Franz. He studied at the Braunschweig state music school. After the Second World War, following studies with Wolfgang Fortner, he became a repetiteur and conductor as well as producing a number of short ballet scores and his first operas. When his publisher offered him a large advance on royalties in order that he could devote himself entirely to composition he made his way to Italy where he made his home in Marino, south-east of Rome. Henze succeeded in fusing a style both radical but acceptable to modern audiences. 

Naxos has just released recordings of two important works from the 1970’s, Il Vitalino raddoppiato for solo violin and chamber orchestra and the Violin Concerto No. 2 for solo violin, tape, bass baritone and 33 instruments.

Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin) directs Ensemble Longbow in Il Vitalino raddoppiato and in the Violin Concerto No. 2 we have an important BBC recording from 1996 where the composer directs the Parnassus Ensemble, London with Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin) and baritone Omar Ebrahim (speaker)

Il Vitalino raddoppiato (1977) is described as a ‘chaconne on a chaconne’ based on Tomasao Vitali’s (1663-1745) Chaconne in G minor for violin and continuo. In two parts, the first, Il Vitalino raddoppiato opens with short sharp string chords before an oboe sounds a motif, soon developed by the solo violin in a fine Italianate melody. Here is an apparently baroque style work full of warmth with Peter Sheppard Skærved bringing some lovely timbers. The soloist as director achieves a chamber clarity and accuracy from Ensemble Longbow. As soloist he brings a brightness, joy and panache, at times reminding one Tippett’s Corelli Fantasia as it builds to a peak weaving its way through a multitude of variations with layers of Vitali overlaid by Henze’s own unique invention.

There is some terrific playing from the soloist in the more complex passages, becoming more and more fragmented and wild towards the end before a more conventional baroque melody tries to return as we are led to the second part Cadenza (and conclusion), a quite brilliant cadenza with Skærved drawing some spectacularly fine sounds before the ensemble join to conclude this terrific piece.

There is first rate sound from All Saints Church, Tooting, London.

Peter Sheppard Skærved goes into some depth in his authoritative booklet notes concerning the basis for Henze’s Violin Concerto No. 2 (1971). Here I will just mention that Henze placed the work at the boundary of theatre and concert stage. The soloist walks onto the stage dressed as the character Baron von Münchhausen but is prevented from playing by the conductor, a conflict that continues throughout the work.

It is in six sections opening with Presentazione where the orchestra sound out in a frenzied manner with a dominant role for piano. The brass rise up before another part for piano after which the strings take the theme leading to a languid piano melody to which baritone Omar Ebrahim adds his spoken passages about the Baron often rising in a wild Sprechgesang manner. There is a scattered string motif before the speaker enters again and we are led into Teorema by the solo violin before the violinist recites from Kurt Friedrich Gödel’s Theorem commencing with the words ‘In any fixed system of axioms, propositions exist which cannot be proved or disproved…’.

If the meaning of the text in the context of this work is difficult for the listener to fathom then he is not alone. The violin continues against the speaker, causing the speaker to fragment his speech. There is some especially fine solo playing here. The ensemble join the violin in a virtuosic passage before the instrumentalists rush forward frantically providing some remarkable textures, full of drama and anticipation showing just how radical and, indeed, fine an orchestrator Henze was for all his radical ideas. The violin soloist then presses on in some more highly virtuosic and complex passages with Henze building a remarkable tapestry of instrumental sounds.

We then move straight into Fantasia I where strange harmonies and instrumental sounds create a distant sound world into which the soloist is cast, drawing some fine textures and timbres as he moves around the instrumental players in this quite remarkable section.  The music rises to some very fine higher notes from both soloist and instrumentalists with Skærved and the Parnassus Ensemble quite brilliant.  Ghostly sounds emerge as speaker Omar Ebrahim recites further text. This section is full of fine sensibility and feeling for its strange qualities. There is more inventive use of instrumental ensemble as the speaker enters again and the soloist and instrumentalists weave the way forward before we are thrust into Divertimento, a rather baroque sound world to which the soloist brings an overriding modernist line. The music presses on with strength with Skærved providing passages of terrific virtuosic solo playing.

When Fantasia II arrives we return to the distant, strange sound world of Fantasia I. This doesn’t last long as the soloist soon brings thrilling playing as the speaker returns and the soloist weaves around him, taking us out of the sound world of Fantasia I.  Ebrahim partially sings the text as Conclusione arrives with the ensemble ruminating in the basses, creating more distinctive, strange harmonies. The slowly shifting harmonies move forward out of which the soloist emerges only to be hit by instrumental outbursts to which he responds with a passion. There is a solo passage for violin where he continues to play passionate intervals with three more outbursts from the ensemble before the solo violin rises ever higher in a spectacularly fine coda from the soloist.

This is a strange, puzzling, yet at times very fine work in an authoritative performance from Peter Sheppard Skærved, Hans Werner Henze and the Parnassus Ensemble. The sound quality of the 1996 BBC recording is top notch, with fine detail.

This new release is surely a must for all devotees of Henze and 20th century adventurous music.  There are authoritative booklet notes from Peter Sheppard Skærved, including source references. The full texts for the Concerto are not provided in full but there are extracts within Skærved’s notes.

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