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Friday, May 15, 2015

Hans Werner Henze, Violin Concerto No. 2, Il Vitalino raddoppiato

When a composer is still living and producing new music, the complete picture continues to reveal itself. Even after passing that composer may have works that are not universally known, so that we cannot be sure we know all the avenues and byways of style that the person has traversed. The latter is true of Hans Werner Henze, who left this earth in 2012, but whose later works are still being absorbed by the new music community, myself included.

Today's recording is a revealing example of this, with two compelling concerted works for solo violin and ensemble, both written in his mature phase. Peter Sheppard Skaerved plays the solo part in each case, and also serves as conductor for the later work. We get Henze's Violin Concerto No. 2 and Il Vitalino raddoppiato (Naxos 8.573289). The Concerto No. 2 comes from 1971, "Il Vitalino" from 1977. Both are unfamiliar to me but it turns out are quite engaging and well performed here.

"Il Vitalino raddoppiato" is in an Italianate neo-baroque style, with a cycling continuo chord sequence and violin embellishments structurally similar to the various versions of "La Folia." In this case the work is based on one by Tomaso Vitali (1663-1745). It is a very colorful piece not at all typical of Henze's high modernist period, in that the continually recurring harmonic sequence is firmly tonal, and thrives in the ingenious shifting orchestrations in the chamber ensemble Longbow, principally a group of winds set alongside a group of strings. The solo violin part is both demanding and very lyrical, played beautifully by Skaerved. And the piece as a whole shimmers with beautiful shades of tone.

Henze's "Violin Concerto No. 2" is a very modern, ambitious work for of course solo violin, plus electronics on tape, bass baritone and 33 chamber players, played by the Parnassus Ensemble London with Henze conducting. This is the 1991 revised version, with a simplified electronics part, which Henze felt in the original was too cluttered. The work is both theatrical (the violinist in performance is to be dressed as Baron Munchausen) and a concerto. The baritone (Omar Ebrahim) recites-sings a poem by Enzensberger and Godel's Theorem. His role is crucial in giving us the literately dramatic-philosophical content of the piece.

It is a beautifully complex work, with the violinist conceived in the romantic embodiment, as Henze explains, "as a magician, a sorcerer with a tragic aura." The solo part is fiendishly difficult at times, but Skaerved soars in the role.

There is too much going on in this work to easily summarize. Suffice to say it is a masterwork that gives back as much as you the listener put into the hearing.

Both performances are excellent, no doubt definitive. It reveals two sides to the composer, both avant pioneer and re-composer of the historic past, both post-modernist and high modernist. It alerts me to aspects of the composer I have not yet sufficiently assimilated. These two works are revelatory. I now am awakened to his evolving, complex later period and reminded that there is still much to hear.

An essential recording, this is. Henze comes though in all his complexities. Bravo.

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