HANS WERNER HENZE: Royal Winter Music II, Etc. – Boris Blacher Ens. – NCA

by | Oct 26, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews

HANS WERNER HENZE: Royal Winter Music II; Carillon, Récitatif, Masque; An eine Äolsharfe – Sabine Oehring, guitar/ Boris Blacher Ensemble/ Friedrich Goldman – NCA (New Classical Adventure) 60227, 54:38 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Henze seems to have come under a staggering number and variety of musical influences in his long composing career, and they seem merely to have accreted on his work; he’s never jettisoned a one of them. So in any given Henze piece, you might hear a snatch of melody worthy of a Romantic-era composer followed by a passage in which the tonal center dissolves into an atonal haze. In fact, you will hear such music on the present disc devoted to Henze works for the guitar.
The guitar has figured prominently in Henze’s music, whether in the theater pieces for which he’s most famous (such as El Cimarrón) or the solo and chamber music that’s featured here. Henze has said of the guitar that it is “a ‘knowing’ instrument full of limitations, but also enriched with unknown dimensions and depths.” There are two sonatas for guitar under the rubric Royal Winter Music, both written at the behest of Julian Bream. The one on this program is subtitled Second Sonata on Shakespearean Characters for Guitar. The title itself derives from a speech by a Shakespeare character not otherwise invoked in the music, the Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III, who speaks the famous line “Now is the winter of our discontent.” Richard appears in the first sonata, but the second is dedicated to three other characters: Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Twelfth Night), Nick Bottom (Midsummer Night’s Dream), and Lady Macbeth. Sir Andrew is a fop and the proverbial fool who is soon parted from his money, which happens in the course of the play. He’s represented by a stately old-fashioned tune at the outset of the first movement. As in the following movements, the initial tonal entry of the guitar soon gives way to forays into increasingly dissonant worlds of sound, the initial motive returning in fragmented form here and there. That’s true of the second movement, Bottom’s Dream, which is suitably dreamy in character, and the finale, Mad Lady Macbeth, which starts with a mad scramble up and down the scale. The piece is marked by microtonal slides, weird harmonics, and wild sforzandi, all of course appropriate to the subject.
Henze’s inspirations seem almost always to be extramusical in nature, and that’s true of the other pieces on this program. Carillon, Récitatif, Masque—scored for the ethereal combination of guitar, mandolin, and harp—is taken from film music. It has a light, bright, al fresco sort of sound that suits the mise en scène of the film, Italy.
The last piece on the program, An eine Äolsharfe (To an Aeolian Harp) for concertante guitar and fifteen solo instruments, is based on a poem by Eduard Mörike that was famously set to music by Hugo Wolf. In the poem, Mörike hears the distant strains of an Aeolian harp, which brings him the bittersweet memory of his brother August, who died while still a teenager. In Henze’s piece, the guitar stands in for the Aeolian harp, while the other instruments furnish the sounds of the wind and, I assume, the paradoxical thoughts of the speaker, who hears the mournful tones of the harp carried on a wind that also brings the soft fragrance of spring flowers and finally a scattering of rose petals, emblematic of one who died before his time. The interplay of the guitar and the low strings and winds plus percussion for which the piece is scored provides a good deal of tonal variety. This is the high point of the disc for me.
The performances here are all first rate. Sabine Oehring, who specializes in Baroque and contemporary music for the guitar, has premiered a number of cutting-edge pieces and so has a special affinity for this often very difficult music and a special relationship with the Boris Blacher Ensemble, dedicated to music of the present day. It was founded by students from Oehring’s alma mater, the Hochschule der Künste Berlin, so there is a hand-in-glove kind of working relationship between the ensemble and the soloist.
If I have any gripes at all, they center on the sound in the last work. The recording is close-up yet resonant, with less than optimal stereo spread. The guitar (very forward in the mix) and most of the other instruments seem jammed together from about center stage right, with the result that it’s often hard to hear the musical lines as distinct. Oddly, the percussionist seems to have the left of the stage all to himself and, along with the guitar, makes the clearest impression, though the percussionist has less to do than just about anybody else in the piece. This is frustrating, but I’ve gotten over it, given all the other musical virtues on display here. So, with just that one reservation, I recommend this disc as a fine introduction to Henze’s music for the guitar.
—Lee Passarella

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