Hans Werner Henze-2nd Violin Concerto & ‘Il Vitalino Raddoppiato’
A very personal view-Peter Sheppard Skaerved 2014
A note on these performances:
The 1991 performance of the 2nd Violin Concerto recorded here was the last time that I worked with Hans Werner Henze as a soloist. A few weeks after this performance, he recorded a TV film of The English Cat with my ensemble in Bavaria, and then our public collaboration collapsed. We lost contact for a few years and then started to write to each other again; more collaborations, performances of chamber and solo works, followed, in the UK, Italy and Spain. Until Henze died in 2012, I had never listened to our final performance of the 2nd Concerto. When I asked the BBC if I could hear it, it turned out that the recording had been lost. Luckily a copy remained in the British Library, this disc has been re-mastered from that solitary record, which needed some restoration. It was obvious upon hearing it, that this was Henze’s music as it demanded to be heard, red in tooth and claw, voluptuous, the composer extracting a performance of frightening commitment from his ensemble. It was my honour to be a small part of that, and I am grateful to the musicians involved, whose enthusiasm that this should be heard enabled this release. Recording Il Vitalino Raddoppiato, with a completely different ensemble, many years later, was a moving experience. It was clear that the magic which Henze brought to the making of music refuses to die, that he is still with us.
These two recordings, one new, and one historic, complete my survey of Hans Werner Henze’s works for violin and orchestra on Naxos. The 1991 recording marked the end of my intense collaboration with the composer, which had begun when I was an undergraduate violin student at the Royal Academy of Music (working on il Vitalino Raddopiato, newly recorded here).
In 1987 my friend and fellow student at the ‘RAM’, conductor Neil Thomson, mentioned that there was a wonderful Henze work for violin and chamber orchestra by Henze, , and I should listen to it. At this point, I was not playing any of Henze, and barely knew his work. So I contacted Sally Groves at Schott London, and she sent the score over to me. I was entranced; confronted by an exquisite work which honestly dealt with a living artist’s relationship to the past. I determined to play this piece: Neil and I put together a concert in the Duke’s Hall, and rehearsals began. To our surprise, and my alarm, Henze found out about the concert, and appeared at the final rehearsal. This was the beginning of our work together. Over the ensuing years, Il Vitalino was a work which surfaced many times in conversation, and the paradigm which it offered, of dealing with the past. It was Henze who drew my attention to Balzac’s observations on the subject:
“Even all that is written down is not certain to survive, and books perish, just as tradition is forgotten. Time, which can conquer iron and marble, does not lack strength against more fragile things.” Honoré de Balzac-Conversations with Marquise de Rombouillet
In retrospect, much of the time that I spent with Henze was spent talking about, or working on the past. The strongest memories that I have are of It was a huge privilege for me, right at the beginning of our collaboration, to work as his musical assistant for the 1988 BBC Proms performance of scenes and arias from his re-working of Monteverdi’s il Ritorno di Ullisse , and it was in this work, most of it done at the dining table of the house that he shared with Fausto Moroni in Knightsbridge, that I first glimpsed the trust that he placed in performers, his belief in shared ideas, and, crucially, his insistence that his scores needed to be grappled with at every level, to release the life which can pour from them.
A defining moment, not just for me, but for the musicians who can be heard on the 1991 recording heard, took place during a rehearsal in Henze’s home town, Gutersloh in 1989. Henze was sitting at the back of the rehearsal room, and from his darkening demeanour, it was fairly obvious that he was getting more irritated minute by minute at what was being done to his beautiful music. Finally Henze’s frustration got the better of him and he strode to the podium, where he took the conductor’s baton. At first the ensemble failed to understand his gestures. His conducting had very little to do with rhythm, but much more to do with the moulding of the musical shape, with Rilke’s ‘breathing of statues’, if you like; it took a while for us to accustom ourselves to what it was precisely he was indicating. Henze conducted the way that I once experienced the magic of ‘Tristan’ by the miraculous ‘non-conducting’ of Reginald Goodall. Henze’s gestures reminded me of a potter’s hands in soft clay. After a few moments of confusion, unheard timbres filled the air, and the music floated in a new and wonderful dimension. There was strange freedom of tempo, but precision of meaning, colour and emotion.
The crucial aspect of this was space. In conversation, he pleaded that his music should ‘breathe’:
‘One must nurture caesurae, the breaks, the breaths … if one doesn’t think about these, then the music becomes frantic, boring.’
Hans Werner Henze’s 2nd Concerto was written in 1971. This was the year after the ground-breaking music theatre piece, El Cimarron (also a collaboration with the poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger) and the same year as Prison Song. Henze pointed out that it shared with them “‘of attempts at my style of ‘action music’”. It was commissioned by the great philanthropist conductor, Paul Sacher, for the Australian leader of his Zurich ‘Collegium Musicum’, and Henze noted that friendship with Langbein, inspired the piece.” I admired [him] as much as a fellow human being as I did as a musician. I later gave him a few lessons in composition, wrote my second violin concerto for him….this dear friend died only recently – blown away like a handful of dust.” Rehearsing the piece with Henze in Italy in 1989, he was at pains to find the liminal space between theatre and concert stage which define this work. A few years earlier, he had written that it “… is a drama, almost but not entirely”, and insisted that, the more dramatic my violin playing sought to be, this should be balanced great sobriety in the delivery of the Gödel’s Theorem, which the soloist intones whilst playing the first cadenza:
“In any fixed system of axioms, propositions exist which cannot be proved or disproved unless the system itself is fundamentally inconsistent.”
This translation of the German, the one that Henze preferred me to use when playing the concerto ‘in English’ as on this recording (I also did it in Italian and German for him), is not the same as the one which he quotes in either his two memoirs for Faber and Faber, Music and Politics (1982) and Bohemian Fifths: An Autobiography (1998). I have no explanation for this, although this version certainly works best with the cadenza. In Italian, Henze had me add another pizzicato to match the five-syllables of ‘inconsistente’.
This concerto puts the soloist in a position of high risk, threatening all of the hierarchies of the form, which remained surprisingly unchallenged in the early 70s. ‘The soloist appears in the light which Romanticism viewed him, as a magician, a sorcerer with a tragic aura.’ In a public interview which the composer gave to me in 1998, he returned to this theme:
“HWH: ‘The almost impossible is always interesting in music. It’s a bit like a circus act – will she, or will she not, fall from the rope? Will Peter Sheppard get the high note at the very end right? Usually, you know, that last note is played too short [laughter]!
PSS: You’re talking about the last note of the 2nd Concerto, aren’t you? It’s very exposed, almost unplayable- it’s a horrible note!
HWH: Maybe it’s a misprint!”
The work begins with the soloist striding onstage late, dressed as Baron Munchausen, bizarre in the extreme. Indeed, at my first performance which I prepared with the composer, farce invaded the proceedings from the outset. . Unbeknownst to me, RAI-TRE, the Italian radio, had placed their microphones around the little opera house AFTER the rehearsal. I waited at the back of the hall, in point of fact, in the main foyer, as the orchestra struck up the tutti prior to my entrance. As I strode down the centre of the hall to leap on stage, I fell over the large microphone stand which had been placed in the middle of my path, rendering the entrance rather more comic than I had intended.
Casting the soloist as Munchausen fitted Henze’s notion of ‘endangered virtuosity’ in two, almost contradictory manners. Henze wrote that the Baron becomes “ entangled in dialectic, up to the end of the composition, and tries in vain to drag himself out of the swamp by his own forelock,” or that seen another way he has to “ carry on fiddling with undying optimism”
Henze originally planned that the Enzensberger poem which inspired the concerto should be heard, along with the other electronic material as a disembodied voice, through speakers. However early in the process, he came to the conclusion that this voice needed to be live, a real riposte to ‘Munchausen’s’ one speech (as Kurt Friedrich Gödel, so he introduced a ‘. baritone, whom I imagine as a dead ringer for Papageneo. [He] addresses the audience directly, declaiming the text in a mixture of Sprechgesang and chanson.’
Henze was interested in clarifying the form and message of this piece. The soloist is set upon by the ensemble, and there is a constant image of the music ‘at sea’ or at least in the Munchausen’s bog. He wrote “Fragments of Elizabethan and Romantic music bob up and founder; they can be taken as aural signposts, but they could also be aural traps and lead to misunderstandings.’
Henze felt that the original taped material for the concerto needed revision, that it was too cluttered. Accordingly, in preparation for the 1991 performance heard on this CD, he, I, and composer Roderick Watkins spent a day recording at BBC Maida Vale Studios. From this Watkins spun together another tape part, which created the integrated version which he sought: ‘‘Counterpoints to his playing are to be heard from other violins, whose passages are alienated through synthesizers’ When he came to write his large-scale autobiography, Bohemian Fifths (published 1998), it was clear that this ‘clarification’ had merged itself, in his mind, with the earlier re-casting of the concerto. He wrote:
“…. The tapes now contain only violin music transformed by a computer into curious splashes of colour and ethereal sounds, music with which the soloist … accompanies himself from time to time. They are echoes of, and canons on his own successions of notes. Otherwise there is nothing. The orchestra falls silent. The man is now completely alone in the world.”
Neither of these pieces are scored for conventional forces, unlike the first and third concerti, which each require substantial and largely traditional, symphony orchestras. In that respect, they reflect the energy, even turmoil, emotional, political and artistic, which seethed in Henze’s output in the 1970’s. In an article published in 1998, I wrote: ‘This is large chamber music, every player active as an individual amongst, and with, other individuals, as distinct from the orchestral use of a large ensemble.’
The year that Henze completed il Vitalino raddoppiato, 1977, also saw the completion of two other explicitly Italianate works, the Sonata (Tirsi-Mopso-Aristeo), and Aria de la Folia Espanola. The scoring of the work, emphasises the many chamber groups available within the combination of instruments, and established a voice for the harp which would flower wonderfully in 1982, with his i Sentimenti Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach. The wind grouping that Henze chose is rather unique, and-a quintet eschewing clarinet for bass clarinet, and making extensive use of cor anglais and piccolo. This, he explained to me, was in order to bring a more roughly coloured element to the ensemble, and was influenced by his ongoing work with the local amateur ‘bande’ around Monatepulciano, where he had begun work in earnest the year before the composition of this work. One the questions which came up was the question of seating, and with this piece, as with a number of others, Henze encourage me to bring the wind to the front of the stage, opposite the strings, increasing vivid colours he had created, and the antiphonal effects in the score, wind to strings, which ideally should swing, around the soloist, stage left to right.
It is extraordinary that Henze would write such a violin ‘concertante’, six years after the acerbic second concerto. His autobiography reveals something of his state of mind when he dream up the work: “… in the Swabian gardens were the first fruit trees starting to blossom, recalling more pleasant memories of a childhood and adolescence spent in Eastern Westphalia. During my free hours I worked on il Vitalino, which is also bound up with such memories, and of course, with lilac bushes and ones very first blushes and sense of fright.’
Il Vitalino is, like the contemporary Aria de la Folia Española a ‘chaconne on chaconne’. It is based on the famous Ciaconna by Tomasso Vitali. Henze wrote that very often, his composing sought the ‘rediscovery of music as I had dreamed it to be when a child.’ In this case, the version of the Vitali which Henze was ‘dreaming’ would have been the virtuoso violin/piano version which was close to being the most performed baroque violin music of the mid-twentieth century. In this, it might be noted that Henze had a Janus-like ability look two directions at the same time; his music embraced the timbres of the emerging ‘Historically informed Performance’ practice movement whilst preserving splendid nostalgia for the sounds of older music as he heard it as a young man. The violin part which he used as foundation for roughly half of il Vitalino was the one prepared by the virtuoso Ferdinand David (who premiered the Mendelssohn Concerto) in 1863. So the piece dialogues with Vitali, refracted twice, through the scholarly violin tradition of 19th Century Leipzig, and through the white heat of the post-Heifetz 20th Century approach. In the score, this ‘original’ material is presented in the violin part in traditional notation, whilst Henze’s transformation uses his personal notational system of ‘note heads’ and ‘ties’, familiar to his performers.
A few years after I first played the piece to Henze, I asked him about the drama of the piece. It was obvious to me that there was a conversation going on. After a short introduction, the soloist enters with the eight-bar theme (accompanied by Henze’s ‘harpsichord replacement’ the harp). This is played twice, then the variants begin, each one ‘answered’ by Henze’s own eight bars. As the piece progresses, the harmonic ground shifts beneath the ‘original material’, so that it becomes impossible to determine (from the outside) whose material is whose. The climax of this huge single movement work is an extended cadenza (there’s a short orchestral envoi to finish, but if truth be told, this piece ends with the soloist as ‘completely alone in the world’ as the 2nd Concerto.
Henze agreed to tell me the actual ‘plot’ of the piece.He laid it out thus: “Well, I imagined that I arrived at this small Italian town, and I go to the local bar. And, there, there I meet Vitali. So we introduce ourselves, and I buy him drink. We start talking-him then me, then him, and so on. And the conversation –as we are drunk by now- turn into an argument, and then, a fight”-he grinned-“which I win! Now you know. Don’t tell anybody.” I failed in this last regard.
Of course, that’s just the armature of the piece. Like all of Henze’s instrumental works, the layers of drama, are often so complex that we performers face a happy lifetime working out our own routes through them. Henze stated, over and over, that there was in intimate relationship between the ‘personal dramaturgy’ of a piece, and the means used to achieve that:
“Whenever I start on a new work I try to establish technical premises (and more or less fictional autobiographical circumstances) on the basis of which is might be possible to attain that state of lightness and purity that could lead to the rediscovery of music as I had dreamed it to be when a child. Thus I am compelled again and again to invent for myself, the music I most wish to hear.’
Peter Sheppard Skaerved. Wapping March 2014