Friday, July 23, 2010

Henze, Hans Werner - Undine , Ballet en three acts - Knussen, London Sinfonietta 2CD

It is always wonderful to encounter a work such as Henze's Undine, where you realize that what you've got is, in fact, a work that can stand alongside the best of Stravinsky's or Ravel's ballets. It is, in short, a genuine, riveting masterpiece. Originally titled "Ondine", Henze's ballet was written for Sir Frederick Ashton in 1958 and is based on a novella by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué (the storyline is more or less the usual one). As Richard Jones put it, it is a "20th century full-length ballet score that has the depth of a masterwork." It is a luminous, variagetd but often ravishingly opulent, genuinely romantic score - modern, but mostly tonal and stylistically suggesting a mixture of Richard Strauss, Stravinsky and Ravel - but never sounding anything other than Henze himself (though Henze in his early, neo-classically oriented phase). It is instantly appealing and accessible, even though it would have been uncompromisingly modern in 1958 (the critical reactions at the time were mixed - it was seen as too modern by balletomanes and reactionary by the avant-garde movement).

The score opens magically and mysteriously, immediately setting the tone, but soon launches into quicker music of propulsive rhythms and ferocious drama. Throughout the work, the various elements are expertly put together (the combination of almost ethereally lush, atmospheric beauty and astringent intensity never sounds disjointed), with too many memorable moments to count, in particular among Henze's ingenious use of a huge variety of rhythmic tricks and techniques. It is always gorgeously colorful and wonderfully scored, never afraid of employing such elements as nature painting (sea evocations, deep forests, clouds, and they have rarely been more evocatively done), and culminating in a most absorbingly, heart-renderingly moving passacaglia - in short, Henze's Undine manages to achieve the trick of being an obvious continuation of the balletic tradition preceding it while at the same time being innovatively modern, and one of the greatest ballets of all time to boost.

Fortunately, the performance is itself a wonder. I cannot really imagine a more mesmerizingly evocative, fiery and warmly colorful performance than the one we get from the London Sinfonietta here. Oliver Knussen is of course the exact right person to achieve a magic sense of wonder in contemporary music, and this must rank among his greatest achievements yet in that respect. Peter Donohoe is an utterly convincing soloists as well (e.g. in the somewhat sardonically humorous miniature piano concerto in Act 2). The recording is magnificent; clean, warm and detailed. In short, this is an essential release of a work that deserves to rank among the greatest artistic achievements of the 20th century, and unmissable for anyone who has even the most passing affection for Ravel's or Stravinsky's ballets.--Amazon

Gramophone Editors Choice . March 1998

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