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Henze: <em>Das Floß der Medusa</em>
18 Sep 2019

A new recording of Henze’s Das Floß der Medusa

Henze’s Das Floß der Medusa is in some ways a work with a troubled and turbulent history. It is defined by the time in which it was written – 1968 – a period of student protest throughout central Europe. Its first performance was abandoned because the Hamburg chorus refused to perform under the Red Flag which had been placed on stage; and Henze himself decided he wouldn’t conduct it at all after police stormed the concert hall to remove protesters, among them the librettist Ernst Schnabel.

Henze: Das Floß der Medusa

Camila Nylund (soprano), Peter Schöne (baritone), Peter Stein (narrator), Peter Eötvös (conductor)SWR Volkanensemble, WDR Rundfunkchor, Freiburger Domsingknaben, SWR Symphonie Orchester,

SWR Classic [CD]

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Although a recording was made prior to this – conducted by the composer – it has taken half a century for a second one to appear. Das Floß der Medusa has perhaps become a work which symbolises the shipwreck it was composed to commemorate.

Das Floß der Medusa closely aligns with Henze’s left-wing politics, nurtured in Italy where Henze had exiled himself in 1953 because of his perceived intolerance of the German state to both his homosexuality and his Marxist views. It’s probably not coincidental either that he chose for his oratorio one of the most ignominious, and politicised, events in early nineteenth century French maritime history – the wrecking of the Meduse which ran aground off the coast of West Africa in 1816. The most obvious allusion Henze, or indeed any artist, composer or writer, could reference for this is Gericault’s painting which hangs in the Louvre.

The painting itself is vast – of such a monumental scale it appears almost life-sized. What Gericault paints is the moment of death, of bodies strewn naked and half-clothed; a few survivors are rendered helpless amongst corpses, in despair and beaten. Limbs are twisted and stiff, flesh pallid and decayed. There is the look of lunacy and madness in the expressions, a theme which would form much of Gericault’s output after this work as his painting took him deep into the abyss of French asylums. It is art as requiem. But the painting is in two halves, almost pyramidal to look at and it is this which Henze exploits in his oratorio. Henze has his chorus move from the left side of the stage to the right side – in essence, from the side of the living to the side of the dead. A baritone is the affirmation of life; a soprano an allegory of death.

The painting and the oratorio probably have more in common than first meets the eye. Although both works are particularly savage in their depiction of the shipwreck itself, both Henze and Gericault take an approach which is semi-documentary in style. Henze’s librettist, Schnabel, certainly had an agenda which was to give a socio-historical viewpoint of the events of 1816 as seen through the prism of 1967/8 – but this is little different than what Gericault was doing in the early nineteenth century. Schnabel’s allusions to Dante’s Divine Comedy, and to Charon, the Ferryman, which inspired Rachmaninoff in his Isle of the Dead, have some parallels in the painting, not least in the tones of the colours Gericault uses – even if the texts are never explicit.

But Henze’s Das Floß der Medusa is also a requiem for a fallen revolutionary hero – Che Guevara, who was killed in 1967. Painting and oratorio now diverge from their core purpose as Henze’s work begins to become a statement for its time: The conflict of class struggle, the inversion of parliamentary democracy, opposition to government. Even at its ill-fated premiere this division was palpable: Fischer-Dieskau was resolutely against the performance; Edda Moser was for it continuing.

It is certainly questionable whether Henze’s own recording of Das Floß der Medusa could ever really be bettered. The composer could be uneven in recording his own works – though this has much to do with the unevenness of the works themselves – but this oratorio is one of Henze’s most powerful pieces, even if it presents a challenge for both performers (technically) and audiences (contextually) alike. The 1968 recording does come from one of the rehearsals prior to the aborted premiere and as such is particularly well prepared – in fact, it’s of exceptional artistic quality. Audiences today will probably recoil slightly from Henze’s archaic message of revolution; European politics seems to be traveling in the reverse direction to Henze’s preferred one. It’s perhaps rather extraordinary that Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau should actually be so compelling on the Henze recording given his catholic, even conservative tastes; but politics does seem to have played almost no part in his choice of roles. The voice is powerful, and he is in command of his full vocal range. Likewise, Edda Moser can be both angelic but frigid as she embraces death. There is a wonderful sense of spatial transparency to the recording – you hear the choruses move from left to right, the timpani clearly in the centre. It’s one of those recordings, like Britten’s own of his War Requiem, which is just stamped with authority.

But this is an oratorio – indebted in many ways to Bach – and it relies as much on narration as it does on theatre. For a work that runs to just over seventy minutes, the narrative can be heavy-handed. Henze’s own narrator, Charles Regnier, is chilling enough (an almost essential requirement if one is reading the part of Charon) but convincing though he is the passages never escape being lengthy.

This new recording, made at the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie in November 2017, couldn’t have a better advocate in Peter Eötvös. Indeed, there are many things about this performance which just sound “right” – the acoustic, the clarity of the choral divisions, the spatial mystery of the work’s vision which alternates between horror and pathos. One could argue that the acoustic does little to emphasise the impact of contrast between life and death as the choruses move across the stage – this is, in one sense, an unremittingly darker performance than the one Henze gave us. Eötvös does, of course, use Henze’s 1990 revision of the score, one which tones down some of more obviously Marxist chants such as “Ho! Ho! Ho! Chi! Minh!” and there is clearly room today to interpret this oratorio beyond the events of the decade in which it was written. I think some performances of the work can still sound uncomfortable, perhaps this one doesn’t.

Peter Stein’s narrator (often the most difficult role to cast) is exceptional, but given his background this probably isn’t a surprise. This is such a nuanced, beautifully crafted reading of Charon it’s hard not to be persuaded by the mythology of the character. There is something Sophoclean about it, a depth which Henze didn’t particularly get from Regnier. The diction is impeccable – so much so I don’t think you particularly have to understand German fluently to understand what is being narrated. There is a printed libretto in the booklet, but in German only – but when Charon speaks “Dreihundertzweiundzwanzig Füsiliere, drei Dutzend Weiber, Kinder: neun” it’s not difficult to follow. A narrator can easily sermonise the text of this oratorio, but what Stein does so masterfully is direct himself as if performing in the theatre; often whilst hearing his narration it feels less like he is reading Henze and more like he is standing in front of Gericault’s painting and interpreting every horrific stroke of the artist’s brush.

There are no particular weaknesses with the soprano and baritone either. Camilla Nylund – a notable Venus in the past – has a powerful voice to cut through the orchestra; and yet, there is no lack of vulnerability either. But this is an assumption of La mort (Death) which seems as Sophoclean, too, in its reach as it is chilling and menacing. Some of Henze’s writing for the soprano is treacherous; the octave leaps and sudden vaults between notes – their very range almost alludes to a tragedy that is inevitable. Nylund sounds like a Siren, luring sailors from a shipwreck against the craggiest of rocks; it could almost have come from the pages of Homer. Peter Schöne’s Jean Charles is perhaps not quite in the same class as Fischer-Dieskau’s (as with many baritones in this role the struggle is with the orchestra). But he shares with his predecessor a lieder-like attention to detail and he is rarely short on conveying the horror of the events unfolding.

Henze’s choruses, especially the children’s chorus, were exceptionally well-drilled. That is the case here. Intonation is very clear, but what impresses is the harrowing intensity. The choruses fade from left to right, a fan of death which is coruscating in its power as the children drown in the waters first, a moment of almost shimmering unease in this recording, until only a handful of survivors survive. Eötvös is even more cataclysmic in driving the orchestral climaxes like crushing blows – those terrifying, thunderous hammers of percussion sounding like the severing of life. The Finale is just excoriating, a vision of hell which shatters the senses. It almost seems right that this recording should end in more than a minute’s silence.

As I mentioned earlier in this review, Henze’s recording was very much one for its time. Eötvös’s recording is very much one for our time. The booklet points out that today Das Floß der Mudusa has a contemporary topicality in the modern refugee crisis afflicting Europe in the Mediterranean. This doesn’t just make Henze’s oratorio more relevant; it also makes Gericault’s painting more relevant. Neither recording – Henze or Eötvös – is more essential than the other in my view because both are of exceptional artistic quality. Das Floß der Medusa is an uneven masterpiece, but its message could not really be lost on anyone who hears it.

Marc Bridle

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