Henze: El Cimarrón concert review

Brouwer Henze et al 1970 low

From left: William Pearson, Leo Brouwer, Stomu Yamash’ta, Karlheinz Zöller and Hans Werner Henze

Hans Werner Henze’s El Cimarrón (1969–1970) for four performers received a welcome performance at Wigmore Hall, London on Saturday 11 March 2023. The text by Hans Magnus Enzensberger was based that of the poet and ethnologist Miguel Barnet – a transcription of the life of the Cuban runaway slave Esteban Montejo. Translated into English by Christopher Keene, the work was sung by baritone Will Liverman, in ensemble with flautist Adam Walker, guitarist Sean Shibe and percussionist Owen Gunnell. To convey the full drama of the epic life story of Esteban Montejo, who died at the age of 104, each of the musicians is required to play on a variety of extra instruments. Adam Walker had four different-sized flutes to perform on as well as a range of percussion. Sean Shibe had only one size and type of guitar, the classical guitar – although he did play it with a bow at the beginning and end of the piece, and his other instruments included the bongos, gong, mbira, temple bells, and an old-fashioned Tannoy megaphone. As well as the demands of the vocal score which required singing, laughing, speaking and shouting, Will Liverman created sound effects using chains and played on a guiro also. We were absorbed by the charged atmosphere of fresh musical ideas and sounds, with such extraordinary contrasts of timbres, supported by driving rhythms and syncopations, all performed by Liverman, Walker, Shibe and Gunnell, with an impressive tightness of ensemble.

The near to 90-minute performance demands complete focus from each of the musicians, who have to perform almost continuously throughout, changing instruments often, with hardly a break in between. This dramatic aspect of the composition is part of Henze’s expressive design. The cosy stage of Wigmore Hall was so packed with instruments that only Owen Gunnell was able to move around a little. The down side of this was that we missed the drama of the instrumentalists running around a larger stage, as they move from one instrument immediately to the next, which adds another level of tension and anxiety to the performance. Other than this small point, it was an absolutely privilege to be able to experience this powerful work in live performance.

El Cimarrón was and still is a brave work – one in a series of Henze’s compositions reflecting the political conflicts of the time. Hans Werner Henze arrived in Cuba in March 1969; he had been in London prior to this attending the première of his Versuch über Schweine at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in February. The title of that work, translated as An Essay on Pigs is a setting of poetry by Chilean poet Gastón Salvatore (1941–2015), who worked often with Henze and was also connected with Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Henze took a recording of his Das Floß der ‘Medusa’ – his requiem for Che Guevara – to Cuba with him. While in Cuba, Henze was fortunate to meet Esteban Montejo, as he explains:

He was delighted that I wanted to set his life to music… I made a note of his intonational patterns, with their complex modulations. He spoke of ghosts as though they really existed. His voice had an enormous compass, extending far beyond the absurd two octaves that are typical of us westerners.

(Hans Werner Henze, Bohemian Fifths: An Autobiography, translated by Stewart Spencer, London: Faber and Faber, 1998, 257)

This also explains the challenging vocal part which Will Liverman delivered with impassioned energy, that held our attention until the very end. The performance was brilliant!

As with Kammermusik 1958 for tenor, guitar and eight solo instruments – premièred by Peter Pears and Julian Bream, with the Orchestra of the Norddeutschen Rundfunk conducted by Hans Werner Henze on 26 November 1958 – Henze’s writing for the guitar in the ensemble for El Cimarrón is distinctively expressive and innovative in his voicings and exploration of the guitar’s possibilities; he understood the potential of the guitar in a direct and individual way.

El Cimarrón was premièred at the Aldeburgh Festival on 22 June 1970, with baritone William Pearson, flautist Karlheinz Zöller, guitarist Leo Brouwer and percussionist Stomu Yamash’ta. Their first recording is still available.

© Thérèse Wassily Saba 2023

2 thoughts on “Henze: El Cimarrón concert review

  1. There has been a Film on German TV from that time with the line up of the first photo. Should be in some archive.


    • Thank you Andreas, the photograph is from my archive built up over the years of working on Classical Guitar magazine, but I don’t have the name of the photographer. I will look out for the film you mention. I like Hans Werner Henze at 75: Memoirs of an Outsider (Arthaus DVD 100360, 2003)


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