Classical: A fairy-tale of polished complexity
Wednesday 18 November 1998
MANCHESTER HAS developed a good line in festivals. Tippett, along with Debussy, was feted in a special concert series, while Lutoslawski, Grecki and Dutilleux also came to Manchester to hear their music. Numerous composers, from Birtwistle to Maxwell Davies, were present last spring when the ISCM chose Manchester to present a cornucopia of new music events under the umbrella of World Music Days.
The latest composer to be given the Manchester experience is the cosmopolitan 72-year-old, Hans Werner Henze. Thanks to a seed sown a couple of years ago, when students from the Royal Northern College of Music were playing at Henze's own Tuscan festival in Montepulciano, the RNCM hosted his first visit to the city and a five-day festival of his music in concerts (including six British premieres), workshops and discussions.
The opening event was a staging of one of Henze's children's operas, Pollicino, and, true to fairy-tale form, it was a magical evening, with singers and instrumental ensemble (including recorders, crumhorns, mouth organ and harmonium) of local schoolchildren and RNCM students conducted with authority by Garry Walker. Continuing the theatrical theme, unavoidable with Henze, the RNCM New Ensemble brought an extraordinary intensity to Henze's Requiem (1990-92), which includes a personal roll-call of horrors past (Auschwitz and Hiroshima) and extremely present (Baghdad and Sarajevo).
Later in the week, the RNCM Symphony Orchestra and Elgar Howarth gave two UK premieres: the bitter-sweet Gypsy Tunes, and Sarabandes, an arrangement drawn from one of his ballet scores, and the revised version of his Symphony No.6 (1969/74) for two chamber orchestras. This difficult score, which requires enormous feats of stamina in its relentless virtuosity, has been made harder still by the composer's fully composed revision of all the formerly random, aleatoric passages. In this Symphony, in which, in the composer's words, "a conflict is depicted", Henze's loyalty to classical form and forces is challenged by his use of period political messages. Each idea, from the Vietnamese freedom song, "Stars in the Night", Theodorakis's "Song to Freedom" and lines from the Cuban Miguel Barnet's Proof Corrections, to exhilarating Cuban dance rhythms, is distinctively portrayed, whether on banjo, guitar and alto flute, or haunting amplified violin.
After its premiere in 1952, Henze's Piano Concerto No. 1 was all but forgotten. Rediscovered and dusted down, it received its first British performance in the closing concert, given by the BBC Philharmonic under Ingo Metzmacher. It was dispatched brilliantly, especially in the biting rhythms, by Peter Donohoe, though Henze, hearing the work for the first time in nearly 50 years, was inscrutable. On this airing, it sounded curiously restricted, as if it hadn't quite blossomed fully. Or perhaps, like the orchestra, its effect was lessened by the limitations of the RNCM Concert Hall.
Even without following Henze's clues to the various direct links between his Symphony No. 8 (1992/3) and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, it was impossible not to be seduced by the orchestral palette from which he draws Shakespeare's characters and their comic and touching encounters, especially in the final, exquisite adagio, "If we shadows have offended...", inspiring extremely polished playing from strings and woodwind.
In its textbook example of Henze's accessible yet often complex style, mixture of formality and lyricism, wide-ranging material and instrumental theatricality, the Eighth Symphony seemed to sum up the whole Festival.
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