Henze Remembered in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Henze: Elisabeth Watts (soprano)*, Maire Flavin (mezzo-soprano)*, Andrew Tortise (tenor)*, Gary Griffiths (bass)*, Simon Phillippo (piano)+, Dean Wright (trumpet)+. Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Christoph Poppen (conductor). St. David’s Hall, Cardiff. 16.11.2012 (PCG)

Mozart: Masonic Funeral Music
Henze:  Requiem: Introitus, Agnus Dei and Sanctus+
Mozart:  Requiem*

This enterprising programme of funeral music featured two of Mozart’s late works, the Masonic Funeral Music and his unfinished Requiem. In the later years of his life Mozart had begun to explore new sonorities and many of these, in particular his love for the sound of the basset horn (an alto instrument of the clarinet family) feature prominently in the two pieces given here – in the Breitkopf and Härtel full score of the Funeral Music they are given pride of place at the head of the instruments. Indeed the wind sonorities of the masonic piece look forward to his later writing for the Masonic text of The Magic Flute.

Hans Werner Henze had died a couple of weeks before the date of this already scheduled performance, and the playing of three movements from his instrumental Requiem therefore formed an unexpected tribute to the work of this major composer. Henze began his career as a dedicated twelve-tone writer, but following his conversion to left-wing politics in the 1960s he adopted a more free-ranging style. His works became more colourful and populist in tone, and it has to be said that his purely orchestral late Requiem (he could not of course set the liturgical texts on ideological grounds) has a glittering and far-from-gloomy surface which is immediately appealing. But his late pieces, like his earlier dodecaphonic works, suffer from a lack of really memorable ideas, no matter how attractively these are presented. We were only given here three of the nine ‘sacred concertos’ composed between 1991 and 1993 which make up the Requiem, but since the work as a whole is over an hour in length this was understandable; and in any event the individual pieces were not originally intended to be performed as a unit.

The opening Introitus composed in memory of Michael Vyner (artistic director of the London Sinfonietta) starts delicately on the piano, but the orchestra quickly interrupts with jagged and pained protests. By comparison the Agnus Dei is more conventionally music of mourning, with the piano providing Messiaen-like elaborations over a series of sustained string chords. The Sanctus introduces a solo trumpet (echoed by two players who had gone offstage at the end of the first movement) and the string writing here approaches positively close to Richard Strauss’s late Metamorphosen, itself a work of lamentation. Dean Wright coped very well with some decidedly difficult writing, and even managed to introduce some expression into the angular phrases; Simon Philippo delivered his filigree passages with delicacy and poise.

This is not the place to give a considered appraisal of Henze’s output. At the outset of his career he seemed to be a figure tailor-made to fulfil the need for a composer who would continue the German symphonic tradition, and much of his music was recorded by DG (and reissued on CD as part of a ‘Henze edition’). But there was a decided lack of second and subsequent recordings, and the composer’s employment of titles such as Essay on pigs and The tedious way to the dwelling of Natasha Ungeheuer (during his ‘revolutionary’ phase) cannot have helped to engender continuing enthusiasm. It remains to be seen how his reputation will survive. The Requiem, on the basis of the excerpts heard here, seems to be almost a regression to his earlier more luxuriant style, and some of the writing is extremely beautiful.

After the interval the sounds of Mozart’s Requiem, given here in the completion by his pupil Franz Süssmayr, sounded almost light-hearted and jolly by comparison with the more earnest Henze. Although the actual forces involved were relatively small, this was a performance on a grand scale. The chorus of Welsh National Opera seemed oddly balanced, with twenty men and only seventeen women – quite the opposite from the gender ratio we normally expect in choral societies – and at first the sound was somewhat lop-sided, with the male voices almost drowning out the females in the Introit and Kyrie. Later, in the ‘Confutatis maledictis’, the balance worked in a way it had not earlier in the ‘Rex tremendae’, and thereafter it remained impeccable.

Gary Griffiths, a late substitute for Neal Davies, was not at his best at the beginning of the ‘Tuba mirum’, but one cannot but suspect that Süssmayr here may have misinterpreted Mozart’s instructions regarding the use of the solo trombone. As Cecil Forsyth remarked in his Orchestration, only the first bars seem to have been written by someone who understood the instrument (and Mozart’s use of the trombone elsewhere in his scores is always idiomatic), and the rest can “best be described as a tuba dirum. The solo trombonist here did nothing to make the writing sound comfortable, and the poor singer was nearly overwhelmed in his lower-lying passages. But the four soloists blended well as a quartet, and Andrew Tortise displayed a nicely plangent tenor. Christoph Poppen led a nicely nuanced performance which did not cling too rigorously to any straitjacket of ‘period style’. One thing to note was that the parts of the score that are incontrovertibly by Süssmayr – the openings of the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei – did not show up as noticeably inferior to the completed sections by Mozart when they were given as red-bloodedly as this.

Paul Corfield Godfrey