Ludovic Van Hellemont, Marco Blaauw, Roland Kluttig / Basel Sinfonietta
Hans Werner Henze (1926 – 2012): Requiem

Altes Kraftwerk, Basel, 2021-05-16


2021-05-28 — Original posting



Table of Contents


Introduction

Venue, Date & TimeAltes Kraftwerk, Lehenmattstrasse 353, Basel , 2021-05-16 19:00
Series / TitleBasel Sinfonietta, “Tod, Trauer, Musik (Death, Mourning, Music)
OrganizerBasel Sinfonietta
Reviews from related eventsPrevious concert in this venue
Concerts with the Basel Sinfonietta

This is my second visit to this extraordinary venue, the Altes Kraftwerk (“old powerplant”, see my earlier post for notes on the facility). The first instance happened almost 3 years ago, 2018-06-10 (see the link above) and featured the same orchestra, the Basel Sinfonietta. And how different the two concerts were! 3 years ago, the weather was hot, humid, damp, the venue packed with audience. Now, with the pandemic (hopefully soon on the retreat), there was no audience at all, the concert was streamed on-line. And it followed several weeks of unusually cool and wet weather, with little perspective for change for better / warmer weather.


The Program

The Basel Sinfonietta is one of Switzerland’s (if not Europe’s) strongholds in new and newest orchestral music. Its concerts typically feature 3 – 5 contemporary works. This concert, however, presented one single composition: the Requiem by the German composer Hans Werner Henze (1926 – 2012). See below for information on the composer and his work.

The concert was streamed online, and so, the orchestra’s managing director, Daniela Martin, and pianist, music journalist, and radio moderator Moritz Weber jointly gave a brief presentation on the program, for the remote audience:


The Artists

Orchestra, Conductor

At the core of this concert was—needless to say—the orchestra, the Basel Sinfonietta. This time (once more) it did not perform under its chief conductor, Baldur Brönnimann. Rather, this concert was directed by Roland Kluttig (*1968, see also Wikipedia). Kluttig was born in Radeberg, Saxonia and studied conducting at the Hochschule für Musik “Carl Maria von Weber” in Dresden. Master classes with Sylvain Cambreling (*1948), Péter Eötvös (*1944) and John Eliot Gardiner (*1943) completed his education.

Main stations in Roland Kluttig’s career centered around two fields: contemporary music and opera. As for the former: 1992 – 1999, Kluttig was conductor of the Kammerensemble Neue Musik Berlin. Then, opera became the central focus in his activities:

For more details see the artist’s biography. After the above formal announcement / introduction, Moritz Weber interviewed Roland Kluttig at the rear end of the hall, about performing Henze’s Requiem:

The one disadvantage of attending the recording of a streamed concert was that without access to the recorded audio stream, the interviews (neither the introduction above, nor the interview with Roland Kluttig) were hardly understandable at all.

Instrumental Soloists

Henze’s Requiem is purely instrumental (see below)—its subtitle reads “Nine Sacred Concertos for Piano Solo, Trumpet Concertante and large Chamber Orchestra”. The term “chamber orchestra” really just refers to the number of string players. Besides a fair number of wind instrument players and a rich percussion setting, there are to main solo instruments, with the following artists:

  • At the piano (Steinway D-274), we heard Ludovic Van Hellemont (*1985). It’s actually the second encounter with this artist: in a performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony on 2017-01-29, he was playing a different keyboard instrument, the celesta. At that time, he joined the Basel Sinfonietta as permanent member, not just for the piano and the celesta, but also covering a more exotic instrument, the Ondes Martenot, which again has a strong connection to Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992).
  • The (principal) solo trumpet was performed by the Dutch artist Marco Blaauw (*1965, see also Wikipedia). Blaauw is specializing on contemporary music, and he also performs on exotic variations of the trumpet, in particular the double bell trumpet, which he developed and introduced.

Setting, etc.

As outlined above, this was a concert without live audience—in fact, my wife and I were the only “external” visitors: thanks to the Basel Sinfonietta (Werner Hoppe, in particular) for this extraordinary opportunity!

Similar to the last concert in this venue, the orchestra was set up along the western (window) front of the hall—the difference being that there were substantially less string instruments. The percussion group was set up on the left (southern side), facing the timpani at the other (northern) end. My position was opposite the orchestra, to the left of the radio control desk. As for the photos, I decided not to move around, but simply to reorient the camera on the tripod, where appropriate.


Concert & Review

Hans Werner Henze: Requiem

The Composer

The German Hans Werner Henze (1926 – 2012) was a prolific composer—a key figure in 20th century contemporary music. Across his career, he explored a large variety of styles, from serialism and atonality on to Italian and Arabic music, as well as Jazz, and more. His oeuvre includes a large body of works for the stage, as well as 10 symphonies, concertos and other instrumental works, ballets, vocal and choral works, chamber music, and solo instrumental compositions.

Henze grew up in Gütersloh, Westphalia, the eldest of six children. His father was a teacher who at some point fell under the spell of the Nazis. Henze’s own, leftist convictions and a climate of homophobia led him to emigrate to Italy, where he lived for most of his life, settling on the island of Ischia in the Gulf of Naples.

The Composition

Henze’s Requiem is not a vocal or choral composition. Rather, it bears the title Requiem — Nine Sacred Concertos for Piano Solo, Trumpet Concertante and large Chamber Orchestra. Henze wrote the work in memory of the late Michael Vyner (1943 – 1989), the artistic director of the London Sinfonietta from 1972 on—a victim of the Aids epidemic. Henze’s Requiem is one of several musical tributes to Viner’s death, including composers such as Luciano Berio (1925 – 2003), Harrison Birtwistle (*1934), Tōru Takemitsu (1930 – 1996), Peter Maxwell Davies (1934 – 2016), Henryk Górecki (1933 – 2010), and Oliver Knussen (1952 – 2018).

Structure

The nine concertos bear the following titles:

  1. Introitus (piano and orchestra)
  2. Dies Irae (piano and orchestra)
  3. Ave Verum Corpus (piano and orchestra)
  4. Lux Aeterna (piano and orchestra)
  5. Rex Tremendae (trumpet and orchestra)
  6. Agnus Dei (piano and strings)
  7. Tuba Mirum (piano and orchestra)
  8. Lacrimosa (trumpet and orchestra)
  9. Sanctus (trumpet and orchestra)

Henze used titles from the traditional, Catholic Requiem mass. However, he rearranged the segments from the traditional order. In addition, he added an extra movement, Ave Verum Corpus (No.3). Forman explanation on the composer’s choice, Wikipedia refers to a quote from Henze’s autobiography (Henze, 1998):

This choice was made to open up the scope of the Requiem and make it a “…secular, multicultural piece, an act of brotherly love that was written, ‘in memoriam Michael Vyner,’ whose name does duty for all the many other people in the world who have died before their time and whose sufferings and passing are mourned in my music.

Creation History

The creation of the Requiem started in 1990 and was a process spanning several years. The nine movements (Concertos) premiered in five separate performances, mostly with different ensembles / artists:

Instrumentation

According to the Wikipedia article, the instrumentation in the Requiem is as follows:

  • Principal solo instruments:
    • Trumpet concertante in C
    • Piano solo
  • Woodwinds:
    • 2 flutes (doubling piccolo and alto flute), oboe, cor anglais, clarinet (B♭, doubling E♭), bass clarinet (B♭, doubling B♭ contrabass clarinet), soprano saxophone (doubling E♭ alto and E♭ baritone saxophone), bassoon
  • Brass:
    • 2 horns in F, 2 trumpets in C, 2 bass trumpets in C (Tuba Mirum only), tenor trombone, bass trombone (doubling contrabass trombone)
  • Timpani
  • Harp
  • Celesta
  • String instruments:
    • 4 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos, 1 double bass
  • Percussion (3 players):
    • Triangle, 3 suspended cymbals, cymbals (pair), 3 tamtams, thunder sheet, woodblock, temple blocks, tambourine, snare drum, 3 tomtoms, string drum, bass drum with cymbal, matraca

On a side-note: the above list does not account for the two (visually prominent) marimbas in the left-hand side percussion group.


The Experience

I see Henze’s music as mostly “abstract” rather than concretely descriptive. Therefore (and because this is a work that is rarely ever performed), I will essentially limit my comment to my auditive impressions, the emotions that the music may want to describe. Still, I’m trying to grasp associations with the contents of a Requiem mass:

I. Introitus

The very beginning on piano and harp is “airy”, almost serene, “suspended”. For moments only—then, incisive, dissonant sounds (disconcerting chaos) indicate the tragedy of death. Static sounds seem to describe numbness, scare, and perplexity in the face of death. Emerging rage, turmoil, contrasts with melancholic momentary melodic reminiscences. Needless to say that the pain remains unresolved, as the Introitus fades away in the violins.

II. Dies Irae

The “Day of Wrath”: rapidly approaching, somber and heavy percussion sounds lead into loud, alarming, incisive, dissonant, even shrill sounds—chaos and pain unfold in massed sound eruptions. Also here, there are contrasting elements—pleading, scare, waves of uncertainty, anxiety in front of the impending judgement day? Are there even depictions of the horrors of hell of purgatory? The religious connotation is highlighted by a momentary quote from the medieval hymn “Dies irae, dies illa. A piano solo reminds of aleatoric or serial music: seeking, without resolution.

III. Ave Verum Corpus

Gentle, lyrical music, ethereal, longing, growing into an intense (but not loud) climax, with the piano mediating between the high-pitch percussion and the brass section, the pleading lines of the high strings: “Hail, true Body, born of the Virgin Mary, having truly suffered, sacrificed on the cross for mankind…“.

IV. Lux Aeterna

May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord…” — In the original Requiem liturgy, this is sung during communion, after Sanctus and AgnusDei. While Henze is referring to the Catholic rites, this re-shuffling obviously also distances the music from its liturgic ties.

There is more to this. Initially, the music reminds of the atmosphere during communion, with waves of gently swelling tones, the high bells that are rung during transsubstantiation—but then, high-pitch dissonances bring back the element of pain and suffering, later, an earthquake in the deep percussion (thunder sheet!) and the low bass in the solo piano appear to open up the menacing darkness of hell, which seems to evoke urgency, fright, scare: an anticipation of what one would expect for Rex tremendae? A short intervention by a post-romantic melody on the cor anglais is not able to bring back lasting peace or consolation.

V. Rex Tremendae

King of tremendous majesty, who freely saves those worthy ones, save me, …” — no, not the overwhelming invocation that one might expect from the Requiem masses by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) or by Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901). Rather, this movement indeed begins pictorial, evoking the scary approaching of a threatening army of soldiers, getting ready for a fight!

Now, the solo trumpet enters the scene, introducing itself with flutter tongue and rapid ascending runs and figures. The highly virtuosic solo then appears to enter a violent battle with the orchestra—it felt as if there was shooting between opposing camps. However, the music is not just noisy: when the piano also enter the scene, the interaction between the groups remains lively, mostly dense. There are violent moments, where the “hostile army” dominates, even appears to take over. The “heavy percussion fight” contrasts with the often almost late-romantic, melodic trumpet solo—I’m tempted to call this (momentary) cantilena. An impressive movement!

VI. Agnus Dei

This is for piano and strings only. The latter emerge in the depth of bass and cellos: broad waves of slow, gentle melodic lines—lyrical, pleading lines, cantilenas. The piano joins in, illustrating the plea with a narrative that alternates between reflecting and verbose. The serenity of an imagined heaven? The movement culminates in an intense climax. Romantic, I’m tempted to say—and definitely beautiful.

VII. Tuba Mirum

The trumpet, scattering a wondrous sound through the sepulchres of the regions, will summon all before the throne.” An earthquake in the percussion announces—not the trumpet, but (literally!) the tuba and trombones: a volcanic eruption with the sound of bells, and a brassy climax. Gradually, the movement turns rhythmic: at times I feels like marching music—enthralling, with drive and momentum. The piano momentarily takes over the percussive lead. After heavy drum beats (a “cadence without the harmonies”!), the piano part culminates in a short, but very demanding cadenza.

VIII. Lacrimosa

Ah! that day of tears and mourning…“—that movement appears in the “correct” position (thinking of the Catholic Requiem mass): a highly intense lament on the solo trumpet, turning verbose, almost “chatty”, facing the oddities of fate (dissonances in the orchestra)? The piano then takes over, with rebellious, aggressive clusters; fighting (with the percussion) ensues, and a trumpet solo / melody seems to express mourning and resignation. Piano and trumpet join into an almost late-romantic, expressive, then heated, rebelling exchange—up to an explosive ending. Henze goes far beyond the original meaning of the “Lacrimosa“.

IX. Sanctus

In the Catholic liturgy, the Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus usually precedes the Agnus Dei, which again is followed by Lux aeterna (and further segments). Henze moves this to the end of his composition. Here, there are actually three trumpets, with Marco Blaauw in the center, close to the conductor, and two “distant” trumpets (members of the orchestra) in the off, at the rear end of the hall: Friederike Huy, on the north side, counter-balanced by Noé Nillni to my left: I instantly related the three trumpets to the three instances of Sanctus (Holy) in the liturgical text.

The beginning is solemn, calm—and resembling a late-romantic symphony of sorts, in dense polyphony, intense—apotheosis? Transfiguration? Then, at once, the three trumpets join in with hymnic tones, expanding the polyphony, drum beats seem to mark a march into the light, into harmony. The music turns almost joyful—and stops. The piano starts with a subtle memory that rapidly evolves into a forceful, thundering cadenza, followed by the final build-up, grandiose, intense, atonal, yet in harmony, and ending with the fading resonances from a powerful sound cluster on the piano.


Instrumental Performance

At the center of the event and of the listener’s attention (particularly for me as the only live audience) wasn’t so much the instrumental performance or aspects of personal(ized) interpretation, but rather the music. Indeed, I haven’t written about the performance at all! In parts, that’s because I deliberately did not try looking for reference recordings or the like, but rather wanted to get an unbiased “al fresco” impression of the music. And, as usual with contemporary music, I do not have access to a score, and hence am not able to judge aspects of authenticity, correctness. Still, let me partially (and somewhat superficially) correct my omission here:

For as much as I can tell, the orchestra’s performance left very little, if anything to wish for—the Basel Sinfonietta performed with engagement and mastery. Roland Kluttig was able to maintain contact with and control the orchestra even in a setting with the “geometric obstacles” of an industrial production hall with its pillars, etc. His conducting style combined control, coordination / rhythmic precision with shaping of the musical flow and dynamics.

Ludovic Van Hellemont didn’t seem to face any challenges with the often complex piano part: he appeared highly attentive and focused, keeping close contact with the conductor at all times, and seamlessly integrating into the orchestra. And also Marco Blaauw proved an excellent choice for the challenging trumpet solo: one could observe that his part was physically demanding, but there was never a trace of doubt about his musical and technical prowess and mastership.


Acoustics

In the previous concert in this venue I had noted that the acoustics of this industrial hall is ideal for the orchestra and the music that it plays. Now, in the absence of an audience, the acoustics were still excellent, though occasionally slightly overloaded at climaxes, especially when brass, percussion, woodwinds and piano joined forces. And Hans Werner Henze just called this a “large chamber orchestra”!

The other quibble about this particular concert: there was a constant, incessible, soft, but still noticeable whooshing noise from the air conditioning. For the broadcast, the sound engineers probably were able to fend that off, but occasionally it even seemed to irritate some of the musicians.


Conclusions

Not surprisingly, the orchestra lived up to its reputation as an excellent ensemble for contemporary music. They very successfully explore a repertoire that most other orchestras don’t dare programming even in a mix with traditional programs. Programs with exclusively contemporary pieces appear exotic or adventurous to most orchestra managers and festival organizers—the scare of upsetting traditional audiences!

Here, the Basel Sinfonietta once more proved that contemporary music can be a highly rewarding experience—for musicians and listeners. And there is no doubt in my mind that Henze’s Requiem is a masterwork: too bad that it wasn’t possible to perform this with a live audience!


Literature

Henze, H. W. (1998). Bohemian Fifths: An Autobiography. Faber & Faber. Translated by Stewart Spencer


Author: Rolf Kyburz

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