This EMI budget reissue in its 20th Century Classics series is one of the most important releases of 2009. It restores to wide availability two of Henze's symphonies, the great original recording of Symphony No. 7, which ranks with Shostakovich and Simpson as one of the finest, most powerful symphonies of the late 20th century, and Symphony No. 9, the little-heard choral symphony written as a tribute to those who resisted the Nazis.
SYMPHONY NO. 7
Henze's 7th Symphony is a fierce, tragic work, "...a German symphony, and it deals with matters German," according to the composer. The superb performance and recording was on May 25, 1992 at the acoustically magnificent Symphony Hall in Birmingham, with Simon Rattle leading the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
Rattle of course has since gone on to take over the Berlin Philharmonic from Claudio Abbado, and Henze's 7th was commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic for its centenary in 1982. It is based more closely on classical models, using the sonata form, and Beethoven in particular, than any of his many previous works. (Henze, one of the late 20th century's greatest composers, is incredibly prolific, though little-known in the U.S.) It is a rich and powerful work, which contrasts tonal elements and classical form with "free tonality," as Henze puts it, producing an emphatically modern work which nonetheless resonates with the expectations of a listener with ears trained in the classical symphonic form.
The subject matter is horrifying, focusing overtly on the torment of Friedrich Holderlin in an asylum, and covertly on the Nazis, the will to power, and the dark side of the German experience. Henze describes the fourth movement, based on Holderlin's poem "Half of Life," as "a final apocalyptic vision of a cold and speechless world devoid of human life." Also included (now on Disc One of this 2-disc set) is another powerful work, the 21-minute "Barcarola for grand orchestra" from 1979, which Henze suggests might tell the tale of a dying man crossing the River Styx, or alternatively Odysseus travelling through a stormy night and arriving in Ithaca.
SYMPHONY NO. 9
Henze's Symphony No. 9, "Dedicated to the heroes and martyrs of German anti-fascism," was the final result of years trying to capture the horror of the Nazi period in a composition. Henze himself was forced by his father into the Hitler Youth, and after being called up in 1944, spent time in a British P.O.W. camp. Henze turned to the novel "The Seventh Cross" by Ana Seghers, published in 1942, which tells the tale of a prisoner, one of seven who are to be crucified, who escapes from the Nazis. Another commission by the Berlin Philharmonic, Henze finally completed the choral symphony on Easter 1997. This recording is from the premiere on September 11, 1997, and the original EMI disc was released in 1998. The movements are: 1) Escape, 2) Amongst the Dead, 3) The Persecutor's Report, 4) The Plane-Tree Talks, 5) The Fall, 6) Nighttime in the Cathedral, and finally 7) The Rescue. The verses, all in the first person, were written by Hans-Ulrich Treichel.
Oddly, though, it conveys a peaceful and lovely mood of sadness, an elegiac, somewhat philosophical tone, more than the terror of the story. According to Henze, "...in my Ninth Symphony people spend the entire evening evoking the world of terror and persecution that still throws its shadow to the present." But it seems to me that Henze had already given powerful expression to his wartime experiences in his 7th Symphony, and so by the time he wrote the 9th he had moved to another level of understanding. Henze's Italianate lyricism shines forth in his vocal writing, tempering the harshness of the German/Austrian 12-tone elements.
The original EMI release from 1998 includes a 68-page booklet with the lyrics in German, French and English, and one major drawback of this budget reissue is that it lacks the lyrics in English. The artwork for this reissue is far better than the garish cover of the original Seventh, with Henze and Rattle's blue heads, but not as beautiful as the original Ninth, with a tree superimposed with a cross.
There is a 2-disc set of Henze's Symphonies Nos. 1-6 as well (see my review). Henze was born in 1926, and so was of the "Darmstadt" generation along with Boulez, Ligeti, Xenakis, Nono, and Berio. While he utilized serial techniques, Henze moved in the direction of the classical tradition fairly early, and turned to opera as one of his main forms of expression. Henze also embraced the New Left of 1968, and his radical socio-political views clearly inform his Symphony No. 7. Who among us could tell in the late 1970s/early 1980s when these works were composed that the world would veer far to the right, moving ever closer to fascism rather than moving in the direction of our New Left utopian vision? Well, some of us, like William Blake, "will not cease from mental fight...'til we have built Jerusalem, in Earth's green and pleasant land."
This is one of the best classical releases of 2009, and if you have not heard these Henze symphonies, don't wait until they are unavailable again!
[Marek Janowski and the RSO Berlin, the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, have recently recorded Henze's 7th and 9th symphonies for Wergo as part of their complete Henze symphony cycle, but while excellent, they do not surpass these original recordings.]