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Henze Weekend at The Barbican

Voices (1974)

Sioned Gwen Davies, Katie Grosset, Mae Heydorn, Kathyrn McAdam, Lilly Papioannou & Amy Payne (mezzo-sopranos), Nicholas Allen, Paul Curievici, Luis Gomes, Jorge Navarro-Colorado, Samuel James Smith, Adam Torrance & Daniel Turner (tenors) and Leif Jone Ølberg (baritone)
Guildhall New Music Ensemble/ Ryan Wigglesworth

Hans Werner Henze was at The Barbican for a generous sampling of his prolific output, less frequently heard in UK during recent years, in a joint enterprise with the BBC.

He provoked very mixed reactions from the critics and from me. Best by far was Voices (1974), one of Henze's prominent political works of the 1970s, prepared meticulously over three months at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama - it could take that long just to assemble the instruments required and to get used to playing them all ! The student singers were coached by Sarah Walker, who can be heard in the original 1978 recording, released internationally on CD in 2006 for Henze's 80th birthday.

It is an eclectic collection of 22 settings of poems "against oppression and alienation" and as the cycle proceeded there was well deserved and mounting applause for each singer (disapproved of by others as "intrusive punctuation" !). I had not had time to study the programme beforehand and during the performance persuaded myself that the instrumentalists might be the crack German outfit Ensemble Modern, which was to be featured the following night !

Let one student stand for the group; Amy Payne declaimed Prison Song with such compelling vehemence that until she actually sang later I thought she must be an actress from the Drama Department; she should certainly do Schonberg's Pierrot Lunaire !

This performance is to be broadcast on July 1st; do diarise it !
But Oh! What a missed opportunity not to have videoed it for a Guildhall DVD !*

For the rest, I did not identify with the disparate music as well as did some of the Henze cognoscenti.

Opinions diverged markedly, with one expert telling me that the performance of the 4th symphony had been a travesty, no more than a run-through, that excusing my having been underwhelmed...

The opera Phaedra attracted interest and a larger audience because of its biographical link to the composer's near-death experience during its composition: - - a mystery illness. No one understood it or saw a way out of it. He stopped eating, then speaking. His eyes began to fail him. He fell into a coma. The musical world began to fly out to his Italian village outside Rome to pay their last respects and prepare for his funeral. Then, two inert months into the grief and the start of the obsequies, Henze "just stood up", and went back to work on the Second Act of Phaedra, in which Hippolyte returns from the dead - -
Nonetheless, and regrettably, I have to agree with the Financial Times that Phaedra "aroused mixed feelings and not even this charismatic performance under Michael Boder could redeem the opaque narrative" (Andrew Clark).

Musical Pointers can perhaps best serve its readers by supplying links to illuminating reviews by afficionados, and to fascinating audio-video interviews with the composer.

Peter Grahame Woolf


Phaedra by Melanie Eskenazi in Opera Today

John Mark Ainsley

and listen to interview with Henze: Birthdays; Memories of Home and Dreaming; Stravinsky and Schoenberg; Cuba & World revolution; Why write music?

See also in Musical Pointer: Henze's L’Upupa

HENZE Voices London Sinfonietta/Knussen: *The best reason for Seeing & Hearing Voices complete and live is the elaborate orchestration, which made a grand picture on stage, with an array of exotica and continual rearrangements of the ensemble of only 14 players. There were wine glasses, balloons and a variety of uncommon percussion instruments to be tackled. Violinist Heleen Hulst appeared to enjoy playing the mandolin and Christopher Gillett clearly relished banging a pair of large cymbals. I hope they all got paid double! PGW

Photos: UrsulaKauffman & Ruth Walz