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Henze as composer for piano

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Rosalind Porter Rosalind Porter | 23:46 UK Time, Saturday, 16 January 2010

The highlight of today's music-packed programme was always going to be the premiere of Henze's Elogium musicum.  My fellow blogger violist Phil Hall had already provided an insider's glimpse of how one prepares a new work and I hope he will be providing some insight into the experience of actually performing a premiere after all the hard slog of rehearsal.  But right now it is time for me to provide the view from the stalls when it comes to hearing something for the very first time.

huw_watkins.jpgHowever, in this long evening programme there were other gems to get to know and appreciate, so I'll divide this blog into two. The first section of the concert was devoted to Huw Watkins playing four of Henze's compositions for solo piano, music new to me.  One big advantage of having such an accomplished pianist as Mr Watkins as the soloist is the sparkling clarity he brings to often extremely heavy and complex keyboard writing, I loved the way I could hear right into the texture of the music and I wonder whether the fact that Mr Watkins is also a composer played a part in how he carefully brought out the salient thematic aspects, enabling one to instantly gain a good grasp of the structure of the musical structure.   It was revealing to read in the programme that Henze has referred to Mozart and Bellini as sources of his singing keyboard style - especially noticeable in the witty and also sensual tribute to Mozart's unforgettable operatic creation, Cherubino.   But for me the most intense journey into Henze's piano sound world came with his Scorribanda pianistica - a real tempest of a work requiring all the virtuosity of Huw Watkins and played with √©lan and virility - an exciting performance! I was actually surprised how much I got out of this first part of the evening and will look forward to hearing this stimulating display of musicality and pianism on BBC Radio 3 later this spring.

It was great to see Hans Werner Henze in the audience, showing heartfelt appreciation for Mr Watkins' performance and in turn receiving much applause from the audience, there's no doubt that it makes the atmosphere of a concert something special when you know such an eminent composer is 'in the house'.

But before moving on to the orchestral part of the evening, I know the whole question of applause is a controversial one for R3 listeners causing much debate and general angst.  But here we go again:  I wonder if it is really necessary for someone to start applauding the microsecond that Mr Watkins ends each piece?   Can't you give the guy a couple of seconds to take his hands off the keyboard so those of us who want to savour the music's climax can enjoy a second of silence before showing our appreciation?   I discovered later that Oliver Knussen had an excellent modus operandi to stop this annoying audience habit... good for him! 

oliver_knussen2.jpgHenze's Fraternit√© - air pour l'orchestre was perhaps the least substantial part of the BBCSO's contribution to this concert, yet it provided another insight into Henze's personal philosophy with the underlying sense of the music striving for the 'Brotherhood' of the title, but the use of dissonance suggested it could be a hard journey to take.  This was a piece which I'd like to hear again, Oliver Knussen's exceptionally precise and clear conducting, bringing out the salient lines of the music was most impressive, but for me it needed another hearing.

The 4th Symphony by Henze dates from 1955 and was given a fine performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra.  Again much of this was due to Oliver Knussen's conducting.  It helps a lot when a conductor can negotiate a way for the listener in this frequently dense score.   You need someone to provide a guiding light and as a listener, I find that when confronted with music with which I am not overly familiar - as in this symphony, it can help a great deal to observe the conductor closely.  This is especially so when it comes to something which is completely new - the UK premiere of Elogium musicum  - where to start with a new piece entering one's ears? More on that in a further blog ... 

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