Hans Werner Henze weekend

By Andrew Clark

Having fallen from the public eye in Britain in recent years, Hans Werner Henze basked in the limelight of this two-day tribute involving the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Frankfurt-based Ensemble Modern. With two substantial UK premieres, plus a cross-section of symphonic, piano and vocal music, the weekend did credit to everyone – not least the 83-year-old composer, looking frail but alert as he stood to acknowledge the hefty applause.

What the weekend revealed, surprisingly for a man who has been waylaid by so many political and personal distractions, was the consistency of Henze’s musical personality, from the precocious Variations for piano solo to the opera Phaedra . Written 60 years apart, both speak of a bounteous fluency and love of lyricism, harmonically advanced yet never far from a tonal base, that no other living composer has matched.

None of the works we heard represented Henze at his best, but all underlined how diligently he has extended classical tradition. That was as evident in his 1999 symphonic essay Fraternité – an unusually taut and seamless argument – as it was in Elogium musicum , written last year in memory of his long-time partner. Despite being a product of Henze’s old age, this Stravinskyan cantata is no sentimental farewell. After a first half dominated by a barren lament and a Dies irae -like blast of bitterness, the second half celebrates mankind’s kinship with nature and ends with a pantheistic Mass of Life. Oliver Knussen, conducting the BBCSO and Chorus, proved an exceptionally lucid guide – more so than in the enigmatic Fourth Symphony, which, like much of Henze’s music, loses its way in a forest of over-fertilised argument.

A selection of piano pieces, pungently performed by Huw Watkins, showcased a rich and undervalued part of Henze’s output. Phaedra , by contrast, aroused mixed feelings. An 80-minute dramatic fantasy, magically scored for chamber ensemble, about love, mortality and the unstoppable dance of life, it has wonderful moments, including an earthquake interlude. But not even this charismatic performance under Michael Boder, with a cast headed by Maria Riccarda Wesseling, John Mark Ainsley and Marlis Petersen, could redeem the opaque narrative.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010.

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