2011, Music

Symphonies 3-5 (2011) by H.W. Henze, performed by Rundfunk-Sinfoniorchester Berlin, conducted by Marek Janowski

This is an excellent set of three of Henze’s symphonies, showing him at perhaps his most radical stage. This is the kind of modernist “classical” that I just love; bonkers writing and bonkers arrangements.

Henze’s third symphony starts off on a decidedly pastoral note, before sounding an ominous foreboding about 15 seconds in. Though the first notes might have convinced us this is something light and fluffy, we’re utterly relieved of that so quickly, it’s almost impossible to believed. In fact, the first movement ends up sounding more like a horror movie soundtrack than traditional classical music. I suspect that a number of major film composers leaned on Henze for their work. Henze employs all sorts of modernist techniques to both the writing and the arrangement.

The second movement continues the downright ominous tone of the work, though, as fitting traditional symphonic construction, the pace is much slower. Again, the sound of that is some kind of demented horror movie. It says a lot to me that the main way I can describe this is with reference to a movie genre that barely existed at the time. I like how, about 7 minutes in, the movement appears to come to its conclusion, but no, it’s just a diversion.
The third movement continues the bonkers modernism with nods to the second movement at the very least. (I guess I haven’t listened to the whole thing enough to hear echoes of the first.).

All in all, this has to be one of my favourite symphonies of the era. A true classic from an incredibly underrated composer.

Henze’s fourth symphony is a little more restrained than the third. It’s still the kind of stuff I love, but after hearing the third, it’s just not as impressive. It sounds pretty similar, albeit less daring. It’s still great stuff, just not as out there. I hear a definite attempt to reconcile serialist/modernist ideas with tradition.

I had read that Henze calmed down once he moved to Italy in 1953, but it’s hard to hear that in the 5th symphony, which is as cacophonous as the third, at least in its initial movement. There’s a boldness here that I thought was lacking in the fourth symphony.

The second movement is the most sedate thing of Henze’s I have heard to date, which is a drastic contrast from the spastic first. It is, I suppose, a more traditional approach, but almost more effective.

The third movement is probably the most “symphonic” of anything I’ve heard of Henze’s so far, in that, at least in parts, it has most of the orchestra playing as one, which seems rare for Henze (at least at this stage of his career). That doesn’t make it any less modern sounding.

Another excellent work.


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