The key to understanding these perplexing symphonies is there is no key—at least not one that can be handed to you in the program notes. Rather it’s a combination lock you mostly have to figure out yourself. There are some clues in the program notes (but hardly a bar-by-bar interpretation). Apparently the nineteenth century German poet Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin had something to do with the third and fourth movements of Symphony No. 7. The unpredictably vacillating scherzo refers to the poet’s confinement in a mental institution, which effectively ended his career. The movement’s sudden changes and jarring fortissimo dissonance does have a touch of Walpurgis Nacht to it. The last movement refers to the poet’s famous poem “Half of Life,” most likely these stunning lines: “Ah, where will I find/Flowers, come winter,/And where the sunshine/And shade of the earth?/Walls stand cold/And speechless, in the wind/The weathervanes creak.” The music, intermittently poignant and rattled, ends abruptly like the open question Hölderlin posed. But then there are the other two movements, which seem as unstable as unbonded uranium. Like Rubik’s Cubes, they can be intriguing mental exercises if you’re in the mood. But if you’re looking for the edifying glow of humanism (always present in Dimitry Shostakovich and Peteris Vasks), skip forward to the next work.
Symphony No. 8 is a more entertaining piece, mostly because Henze succeeds in capturing some of the spirit of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Whimsical use of percussive temple blocks and tooting bassoons, as well as sudden trombone legatos make this piece more palatable than its tortured predecessor. You don’t have to be in the “right frame of mind” to enjoy it. Of course, it won’t challenge Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Op. 61). But if you close your eyes in the first movement, you can imagine Puck putting “a girdle round the earth/in twenty minutes.” And with a further tug of the imagination, you can envision the lighthearted rondo in the second movement as the courtship of Queen Titania and ass-headed Bottom. Of course both works are splendidly interpreted by conductor Marek Janowski. But your purchase decision should probably not be based on the quality of these performances, but on the nature of the works themselves.
— Peter Bates