Hans Werner Henze: Night pieces and arias (Naxos)

Why are so many in the dark about Germany’s leading musical light?

Lebrecht's Album of the Week


It’s about time Germans got to grips with their greatest modern composer. While Berlin plays reams of Rihm and Munich wallows in Orff, the life and works of Hans Werner Henze are considered too recent and controversial to be admitted to bourgeois concert halls. Of the nine symphonies — two of them masterpieces — none gets done by major state orchestras. We’re in 2022 and Henze has been dead for ten years. Surely it’s time for the Germans to get over their Henze issues.

Raised in a Nazi family, Henze turned Communist and gay. In 1953 he left West Germany to live mostly in Italy. While some of his work was frankly agit-prop — his Che Guevara oratorio The Raft of Medusa and his opera We Come to the River — most was high-octane music of rare intensity, occupying a space that is identifiably modern without being doctrinally serial.

The three works on this album sample different creative periods. The Night pieces for soprano and orchestra, dated 1957, survey a lunar landscape that is at once serene and unsettling. Los Caprichos of 1963 reflects the composer’s immersion in Mediterranean ambience. The English Love songs of 1985 are a rhapsody for cello and orchestra inspired by English poets. 

Marin Alsop conducts the ORF Vienna orchestra with soprano Juliane Banse and cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan as superb soloists. It is not often that I sit through an hour of modernism and am left wanting more, but that’s how persuasive Henze can be. He is a composer of the highest craftsmanship and sensitivity, yet beyond Vienna which recently revived one of his operas, nowhere seems ready to embrace him. That is more than a shame. It’s a German disgrace.

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