Music: Henze weekend Aldeburgh Festival

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The Independent Culture
What is it about manuscript paper that has such an effect on composers? Hans Werner Henze, chatting on Sunday to Sir John Drummond at Aldeburgh's Lighthouse Restaurant, sounded cool and witty, a man basking in the glow of a new autobiography, a major CD reissue of his music by Deutsche Grammophon, and his role as featured festival composer to celebrate his 70th birthday. Yet, the night before at Snape Maltings, his Appassionatamente had nearly blown the heads off an enthusiastic audience in its stunning UK premiere, given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Oliver Knussen. Sir John had described Henze's daily routine as pleasures in the afternoon, hard work in the morning. Very intense work, to judge from this score. Henze may stand among the world's musical nobility, but put a pencil in his hand and he becomes a vessel for Dionysiac rage.

In fact, Appassionatamente is a fantasia on the violent emotions of his recent opera, The Ocean Betrayed, so that any simple equation linking life and art is probably facile. And like Colin Matthews's M50, the concert's opener, the piece could equally be heard as a brilliantly concise essay in symphonic velocity. The clash of lean and craggy counterpoint was the fuel for M50, whereas each page of the Henze gave fresh revelations of blended timbre. That kind of sensual charm has always been among his hallmarks, as baritone Alan Opie showed in his reading of the delicate 1950s classic, the Five Neapolitan Songs. From their matrix of love and death, hope and despair, have sprung other Apollonian hymns to desire over the years, as well as Bacchic revels and social polemic. A man who has founded festivals, sparked off riots, conducted, and nurtured young composers must be both energetic and ordered in his life. How the polarities have yielded so much for so many is one of the themes of the festival.

Henze was still struggling for survival in war-torn Germany when Glyndebourne premiered Britten's The Rape of Lucretia in 1946, and Steuart Bedford conducted Sunday's concert performance at Snape Maltings just a month short of its half-century. In this special acoustic, and with a roster of famous names - Thomas Allen as Tarquinius, Jean Rigby as Lucretia, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Janice Watson as the chorus - it was a transparently clear account that left the work's dramatic form open for inspection.

There are two sticking points: the sudden dose of Christian morality in the epilogue and, elsewhere, a slight dysfunction between the roles of chorus, monologue and naturalistic speech. To judge from letters assembled by Donald Mitchell, Britten himself defended the piece stoutly, while also learning from the experience. Musically, it remains beyond reproach; Kate Hill's subtle alto flute and Nicholas Daniel's oboe and cor anglais made it lovelier still. Though the problems remain, old operatic law allows errors of sense provided the sounds are good. On these grounds, and beguiled by the Suffolk sunshine in the interval break, it was easy to offer a general pardon.