Henze: String Quartets

Author: 
Arnold Whittall

Henze: String Quartets

  • String Quartet No. 1
  • String Quartet No. 2
  • String Quartet No. 3
  • String Quartet No. 4
  • String Quartet No. 5
  • String Quartet No. 1
  • String Quartet No. 2
  • String Quartet No. 3
  • String Quartet No. 4
  • String Quartet No. 5

The Arditti Quartet have a voracious appetite for twentieth-century music—the more complex and challenging the better. Alongside Carter or Ferneyhough, Henze's music might appear relatively easy to play. But its world is an allusive, unpredictable one; even if purely technical hurdles do not confront the players in every bar, interpretation is by no means a straightforward affair.
The very early First Quartet (composed in 1947 and revised before publication 20 years later) illustrates why this is so. Its predominant characteristic is an unapologetic, vigorous neo-classicism evoking the Stravinsky of Pulcinella, and even the as-yet-unwritten Rake's Progress. But the second movement offers an early example of Henze's tendency to prolong ideas to a point where the music moves into a kind of assertive anonymity, in flight from other dominating personalities but never quite discovering a distinctive alternative.
In the Second Quartet the allusions are to Webern and Schoenberg. But the second movement, again, has an expansiveness that the great serial expressionists, Webern above all, no doubt felt they had dismissed for ever, and in Henze's struggle to forge a personal language we already see the shade of Mahler looming up through the Bergian mists. The result is a fascinatingly diverse and far from negatively disjointed work, which the Arditti Quartet perform with winning freshness and confidence.
The last three quartets are particularly close to Henze's major project of that time, the opera We come to the River. All are elegies, though more furious than funereal in character. The Third Quartet is a 19-minute single movement whose intricate linearity sounds passionately introverted, yet even in a performance as intensely sustained and rich in nuance as this it seems to take too long to build to its principal climax. When that climax comes, it is powerful and cathartic, but it might be even more so if the music preceding it had as much variety as it has fantasy.
The Fourth Quartet is the wildest as well as the longest of the five. From a first movement that looks and sounds at times like a parody of the early Penderecki it proceeds to a slow movement of more than 15 minutes in which a Byrd Pavane is dissected and decorated, with great resource and eloquence but—once again—at excessive length. After this the gentle scherzo and fiercely improvisatory finale come as relief, but also as highly effective resolution.
The Fifth Quartet is inscribed ''in memoriam Benjamin Britten''. Nevertheless, it is We come to the River that the music actually quotes, and while Henze's poetic programme, as set out in his notes, seems to end with renewal and recovery from nightmare terrors, the musical tension remains high, ending the quartet with an ambiguity of which Britten would surely have approved.
The Arditti Quartet meet all Henze's many demands for 'special effects' with supreme skill, and they also respond sensitively and unreservedly to the wide range of expressive characteristics of this riskily diverse but memorable music. The recordings were made in 1984, so we hear the Quartet's original members. The sound is admirable throughout.'

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