Schotts music publisher have issued all ten symphonies in soft paper binding in a handsome box. So it seemsa good moment to assess the symphonies of this extraordinarily prolific composer.
Some readers will remember the fuss over the Seventh Symphony when it appeared in the Eighties. It was Henze’s first symphony in 15 years. It was also a Berlin Philharmonic commission, and the composer produced his first traditional, four-movement symphony. And a very Germanic work it is, with a Brucknerian slow movement and elegiac finale. But how good was it? Some critics found it more show than substance, a movietone simulacrum of a symphony. Robin Holloway ominously described the work as sounding ‘like a million dollars.’ I remember another British commentator criticizing - I think rightly - the sometimes approximate sense of detail in the note-dense score. I organized the first Irish performance of the work in 2005 with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra. Listening to the Seventh for the first time live, I thought some of these criticisms harsh. It seemed to me that the Symphony in its totality said something affecting about the symphonic tradition. Its rage and tenderness flowed from the same source and conjoined into a convincing if imperfect credo.
My earliest memory of the early symphonies is the old Deutsche Grammophon vinyls, of which I still have my copy. (They are reissued on CD as part of The Henze Collection by DG, with the Sixth added.) On the sleeve was an elegant portrait of Henze in profile touting a cigarette. Among my favorites are still number one, surely among the most accomplished as well as delightful 20th C works by a 21-year old composer. Compare it with Boulez’s snarling Flute Sonatina of about the same year (1947) and you will hear what I mean. After this, number two is something of a let-down, a bitty essay that does not add up to much. But number three, with its Mahlerian ethos and crazy jazz riffs, is interesting. Number four is a dark work which may be the star of all the early symphonies, seeming to build up the whole way to its shattering last page. I have warmed to number five, the most Stravinskian of the early symphonies, especially in its mosaic-like first movement. The slow movement drags a bit: Henze has a habit of writing meandering solos for flute and oboe. But the finale is exciting. Listeners should also try to hear Bernstein’s premiere performance of this work with the NY Philharmonic in 1963. I have heard it on American radio. I don’t know if it is otherwise available.
Who now bothers with symphonies anyway? Henze’s ten probably confirm him in many a younger composer’s mind as a living fossil. Yet the form surely remains a test of a composer’s accomplishment.