Outstanding Henze from Igor Levit and Franz Welser-Möst

28/08/2018

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Salzburg Festival [4] – Henze and Wagner: Igor Levit (piano), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor). Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 25.8.2018. (MB)

Igor Levit (piano), Wiener Philharmoniker & Franz Welser-Möst (conductor)
© Salzburger Festspiele/Marco Borrelli

Henze – Tristan: Preludes for piano, tape, and orchestra

Wagner – Götterdämmerung: Dawn, Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, Death, and Funeral Music, Conclusion

Wagner: however much we try, we cannot escape. Do we even want to? Not really, nor have we ever. Where would Stravinsky have been without Wagner and, to a lesser extent, Beethoven to blame? Where would Henze have been? He liked to proclaim his independence from, sometimes even revulsion towards, Wagner and Schoenberg; it was not necessarily disingenuous. The ‘ghost of old Klingsor’ (Debussy in a letter to Ernest Chausson) always won, though. In Tristan, such rebellion was not really an issue – which, in some ways, paradoxically and/or dialectically, enabled Henze to resist direct ‘influence’ and its anxiety more strongly.

Certainly hints of the Tristan Prelude were soon to be heard here, from the Vienna Philharmonic’s woodwind; not, however, before Igor Levit had sounded notes from the post-Wagnerian future, that of Schoenberg. Not to be reduced to Schoenberg’s op.11, of course, yet certainly within its orbit. (There is a work we really need to hear from this pianist!) Woodwind response, cool but not cold, participated in yet also placed itself in opposition to the extraordinary long line Levit spun throughout. There was no doubting his confidence in the notes, which helped, I think, many in the audience to share in that confidence, to begin their own exploration of this work. Franz Welser-Möst’s brief spoken introduction, most welcome, had done no harm either. The invasion of a beautifully balanced, resounding A minor chord by the metaphysical penumbra of taped music (presumably that remade in 1990 by Henze and Roderick Watkins, in response to technological development) initiated quite different moods and textures, generative in possibility. Bach, Mahler, Berg, ballet as well as opera: there were many ghosts at this feast, often in (il)licit relation.

The use of Brahms’s First Symphony is the most celebrated, most obvious, of other quotations in Henze’s collage. As Brahms himself might have said, were they pointed out, ‘any ass can see that’. What follows, though? Over what do they hang? And what, if anything, might they mean? Stephen Downes, in Hans Werner Henze: Tristan (1973) (which I reviewed here for Music and Letters), rightly criticised Peter Petersen’s claim that Brahms served Henze as a merely negative, anti-erotic, anti-Wagnerian dramatic ‘character’. Welser-Möst seemed both to understand and to communicate that. These are not crude oppositions; nor did they sound so here. Both he and Levit showed that clear textures need not entail loss of dramatic power or heft; indeed, the latter’s grand manner (where required) has surely set new standards in this work, perhaps in Henze’s piano writing more generally. There was, moreover, meaning in the clusters and chords we heard. It might not be meaning we (or at least I) can put into words; that is hardly the point. Just as in Tristan und Isolde, however, it is there: vertically and horizontally. The child’s heartbeat, that inescapable moment of loss, of memory spoke both truer and yet more enigmatically than I have heard.

Wagner ‘bleeding chunks’ rarely prove a happy experience. Nor did they here, whatever the excellence of the VPO’s playing. Welser-Möst seemed aware of the problems. It was difficult to imagine that this was quite how he would have played the music in the opera house, Götterdämmerung’s ‘Dawn’ opening more slowly than it would likely have done had we just heard from the Norns, yet gathering pace relatively quickly. A boisterous, full-bodied account of ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’, with just a hint or two in harmony and timbre of the Gibichung decay to come, led into his death and funeral rites: noble, not without brutality, especially from the brass. It was somewhat misleading to have the final section described as ‘Schlussszene’; what we heard began just a few bars before Brünnhilde’s ‘Fliegt heim, ihr Raben!’ No matter. Incisive string playing summoned up rather steely flames, if you can imagine such a thing. We missed the vocal line, but could readily fill it in mentally. It was impressive in its way, and the final motif (often misleadingly named ‘redemption through love’) sounded glorious from the Vienna strings. Was I moved, though? Alas not.

Mark Berry

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