The prime of Herr Hans Werner Henze

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The Independent Culture
Few things show up the residual island-nationness in British attitudes to modern music than the way we've hedged our bets on Hans Werner Henze. Of course we celebrate his achievements and have been happy to accept him as Important. But Important, principally, elsewhere - in Austro-German Europe. My guess is that there's a historical grudge at work here: a gut belief that Austria-Germany has had more than its share of musical profile in the past 250 years, and that the pendulum must have swung in some other direction by now. Whenever periodic bouts of Henze-based activity do break out in Britain - like the big BBC Henzefest at the Barbican in 1991 - they always seem to be qualified by the comforting discovery that not all his music is of great distinction. But the fact is that Henze's output is so prodigious, it would be surprising if there weren't some dross. There also happens to be gold, especially among the music of the past few years - the Requiem, the 7th Symphony, the opera Das Verratene Meer - which suggests that after an equivocal mid-life oeuvre he has resurrected into an indian summer of creative power. This year he hits 70, and the Aldeburgh Festival has made it the occasion for a special focus on his work: an appropriate tribute to a composer who at one time seemed to have a lot in common with Britten and has certainly been a favoured figure in past Aldeburgh programmes.

The programming of this birthday focus has, within the scale available these days to Aldeburgh, been ingenious, encompassing some 40 years of writing from the importunately youthful Neapolitan Songs of 1956 (handsomely sung by Alan Opie with the BBC SO) to the brand new orchestral score Appassionatamente - not, alas, a setting of scenes from Jilly Cooper (her time will come) but a densely compacted abridgement of marine music from Das Verratene Meer which begs comparison with the "Sea Interludes" from Peter Grimes although the comparison won't take you very far. A short, sharp, brilliant tour de force, Appassionatamente is hard on both the ear and the mind, not destined to become a concert favourite.

But there's a happier destiny, I think, for Ondine, the 1950s ballet score dusted down at Snape Maltings by the London Sinfonietta under Oliver Knussen and about to get a new lease of life, from the same forces, in the recording studio. Ondine explains a lot - not least how Henze became so successfully "established" in those early years. Accessible, attractive, eminently danceable, with strong, emphatic rhythms, it's a grand score in the neoclassical traditions of Stravinsky and Prokofiev and survives (just about: last done in 1989) in the ballet repertory at Covent Garden - the house for which it was originally written. But for concert-goers Ondine is unknown territory; and hearing it played so superbly well at Aldeburgh was a revelation. It presented on a plate the radical conservatism in Henze's chemistry: the instinct that caused him to abandon post-war Germany and the serialist avant-garde which had colonised its musical life, and follow the Aschenbach- ian road south to Italy where he still mainly lives. Ondine is luscious with a convert's zeal for Mediterranean lyricism, in much the manner of William Walton's Italian-period music; and it prompts recall that Henze's first Italian home was Ischia, where he was absorbed into the community of cultural exiles already formed by the presence of Walton and Auden on the island. Ondine is full of Waltonian touches, with dazzling fanfares breaking out of the last act that would do justice to any British coronation service.

Aldeburgh's Henzefest finishes today, but the birthday celebrations go on elsewhere - notably at ENO where a much-travelled production of The Prince of Homburg (reviewed on these pages when it played in Ghent) opens on Saturday. Deutsche Grammophon, meanwhile, have just issued a commemorative "Henze Collection" of 14 CDs that includes some classic older recordings never before available in this format. As an introduction to the range of Henze's output, it's invaluable, if partisan; and it demonstrates that however Henze's music has changed through the years, an essential preoccupation with the language of the heart, as opposed to the grammar of the mind, has been a constant.

Henze hasn't been the only living composer at Aldeburgh. There was a commissioned Piano Concerto written and played by Marc Neikrug which turned out to be more a piece about piano concertos: a display of refracted romanticism that lingered over fragments of the past and avoided nostalgia only through indifference. Continuing the theme of composer-executants, there was also a Piano Quintet by Brett Dean, the viola player with the Berlin Chamber Group who were at Snape to give the score its UK premiere along with pianist Imogen Cooper. Called Voices of Angels, it used the forces of Schubert's Trout Quintet (double bass instead of a 2nd violin) and came in two minutely calculated but beautifully evocative movements that each ended better than they began (the best way round). A score I'd like to hear again.

But the spirit of Aldeburgh always seems to me to be most vitally alive in the Composer Portrait concerts that happen in the morning in the Jubilee Hall, the little, squat, historic seafront home of so many Britten premieres that whatever happens there feels somehow sanctioned by the hand of genius. This year's portrait was of Anthony Payne: a quietly confident voice in British music and someone whose work has found, if not exactly common ground at least a cohabitable equilibrium between English romanticism and the European avant-garde. That duality was evident in his choice of programme: especially in two movements from his flute and guitar suite A 1940s Childhood which, with exacting economy, conveys the balmy unease of English rurality in time of war. A sort of Constable landscape, with Messerschmidts. Finely played by Lisa-Maree Amos and Jonathan Leath- wood, it was part of an altogether excellent concert from Jane's Minstrels with the eponymous Jane Manning, also known as Mrs Payne.

The Spitalfields Festival was doing its duty by the New this week with the London premiere of Julian Andersen's song cycle I'm Nobody Who Are You?, a treatment of Emily Dickinson poems that over-sets their fragile humour but remains a fascinating and commendable score, alive with ideas. More questionably New were some of the pieces in the opening recital of the Westminster Cathedral Organ Festival, a showcase for the recently overhauled Great Organ whose heavyweight romantic potential you don't often get the chance to hear liturgically. Naji Hakim's Variations on Two Themes was a horror of banal bad taste that could only have been written by a successor to Messiaen at St-Trinite in Paris; and Percy Whitlock's Sonata had its moments, if not enough to justify a bottom-breaking 50 minutes. But my word, they were magnificently played by John Scott, with fluency, panache and, if nothing else, a spirit of adventure. This diverting series runs until September. Take a cushion.