on 11 August 2013
The performances here have rightly been hailed as dynamically effective in bringing to life a dazzling range of symphonic writing. For the extremely reasonable price involved, it's hard to see why anyone with half an interest in one of the great original voices of the 20th century might hesitate.
The symphonies track Henze's development in a manner that is easier to follow than would emerge if one tried to conduct a similar survey of his stage writing. Symphony 1 (1947) gives you a flavour of his fresh earlier style, pleasingly cleansed in his 1963 revision for chamber orchestra. Symphony 2 (1948) shows the startling pace of his precocious development, with a sure-footed advance into larger-scale symphonic writing, dark-coloured and serious, a marker for the culture of the composer's outlook. The 3rd (1949) draws from Henze's warmer vein, lyrical, bright in feel, with dance rhythms never far away. As early as 1955 we see his 4th, with Henze still aged only 29, here on a more Mahlerian scale, with heavy lifting of material from the contemporaneous opera King Stag. I bought these discs as vinyl in May 1977 and I still love this vibrant writing. By now Henze's output was attracting criticism from the (self-styled) leaders of the avant-garde. What a pity it was that fashion drove the collective focus away from beautiful works like Nachtstucken und Arien (1957).
The 5th Symphony (1962) is not my favourite among his works - perhaps it belongs to a kind of inter-regnum before the exquisite Being Beauteous (1963) and other lyrical masterpieces of this period. Henze then caused himself grief by dalliances with politics, in Cuba and Chile in particular, leading to the notorious debacle of the Raft of the Medusa première (Hamburg, 1968). This also gave rise to the 6th Symphony (1969) where the writing becomes less focussed amid the excitement of the Cuban rhythms. There's some electrifying material here but from around 1968-1976 much of Henze's output suffered from elements of shrillness in the thinking, particularly where political issues clouded his judgement. Happily the later Symphonies recover balance, but they are not included here. We are surely due a complete set of the ten before long.
For the present, content yourself with a mild investment and give these a good hearing. Don't expect Mozartian perfection - after the Second War, this is unlikely to be found. You will have to search a little more carefully for Henze's greatest compositions, but for now this is something only to be grateful for as a rounded introduction to one of the outstanding lyrical geniuses among 20th century composers.