Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Henze's Violin Concerto No. 2 and Il Vitalino raddoppiato

Hans Werner Henze:

Violin Concerto No. 2
Il Vitalino raddopiato

Peter Sheppard Skærved, violin
Omar Ebrahim, Spesaker
Parnassus Ensemble London

Naxos CD  8.573289

It is hard to imagine two more contrasting pieces than the works for violin and orchestra collected on this disc, although they were written only 6 years apart. The disc is a wonderful showcase of Henze’s inventiveness, range, and imagination.

Il Vitalino raddopiato reflects Henze’s love of early music. It is based on a chaconne for violin and continuo by the Italian Baroque composer Tomaso Vitali – in fact, it is Vitali’s best known work and has seen various arrangments, including an arrangement for violin and orchestra by  Respighi. This two movement work (whose title translates, roughly, as Vitalino redoubled or Vitalino renewed) is a wonderful and charming piece. It is a tribute to Henze’s skill that it does not come across as an exercise in neoclassicism and that the 27 minute opening movement continually engages the listener. The cadenza and conclusion are much less firmly grounded in the world of the Baroque, but still complement the first movement well.

The Violin Concerto No. 2, in contrast, is a more full-on experimental work. It is a violin concerto in the sense that the solo violin is the dominant musical force and there is a genuine dialog between violin and orchestra. But there are also some more unusual elements, including the solo violinist declaiming the statement of Kurt Gödel’s famous theorem proving the incompleteness of arithmetic while playing the first cadenza. In addition to the logical violinist a baritone is brought in to sing a poem by Hans Magnus Enzensberger that was apparently the inspiration for the concerto.

This is heady stuff, very 1970’s. The vocal sections do not work on their own terms – at least to my ear, speaking as someone with a professional interest in mathematical logic. The effect is too portentous. But the piece as a whole does, I think, work if the vocal sections are taken as just another strand in the musical texture, rather than as a poem and a theorem. Of course, that’s almost certainly not how Henze himself conceived of them, but listeners do have the freedom to plot their own path through the music.

Naxos are to be thanked for putting this disc out. The playing and sound quality are superlative (strikingly the performance of the violin concerto comes from a BBC concert in 1991), and the thoughtful liner notes by Peter Sheppard Skærved are a welcome bonus. Sheppard Skærved is an excellent violinist with a deep insight into Henze, with whom he collaborated on both of these works and a number of others. Highly recommended.    

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