Sunday, March 25, 2012

Henze and Schubert

A few days ago a representative from the New York Philharmonic called and offered half price tickets to the remaining performances this season. The offer was too good to pass up, so I attended last night's concert featuring the Adagio, Fugue and Maenads’ Dance from Hans Werner Henze’s opera “The Bassarids” (1964-65/2004), conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi.

The New York Times wrote:
Mr. Henze’s opera is based on Euripides’ “Bacchae,” with a libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman. The plot focuses on the tussle between the hedonistic cult of Dionysus and the abstemious ruler King Pentheus, who goes undercover in drag to spy on the debauched proceedings taking place in his kingdom. He is recognized and killed by the cavorting Maenads (Bassarid being a synonym for Maenad). 
The opera is structured like a classical symphony, with a sonata-form opening movement, a scherzo, an adagio and a passacaglia finale. In 2004 Mr. Henze made segments of the work into a concert piece for huge orchestra, with the vocal lines reassigned to instruments: a sensual, luxuriantly scored suite with echoes of Berg.
I was kind of dreading this, expecting some squeaky dissonant thing in the style of Webern or Schoenberg but the Henze piece actually turned out to be pretty accessible, sort of like a horror movie soundtrack with elements of Stravinsky. The orchestra was huge, almost Wagnerian, and some of the dynamics were so startling that I nearly jumped out of my seat a few times.

The second half of the program featured Schubert's Symphony No. 9 in C Major. It's an old favorite though I don't think I've ever heard it live. Dohnányi traded some of the grandeur for a fresh, dramatic pace and the lady in front of me was actually swaying and bobbing to the rhythms (so distracting though I caught myself doing the same thing). The fourth movement was particularly enjpyable with the recapitulation of themes and melodies of the earlier movements.

Here's Herbert von Karajan conducting the finale with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

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