El Cimarrón review – virtuoso celebration of Cuban folk hero

Wigmore Hall, London
A rare performance of Hans Werner Henze’s engrossing song cycle featured a tour de force of technique and stamina from baritone Will Liverman

Through the 1960s Hans Werner Henze’s music became ever more politically engaged. Some of those pieces have not worn well, but one of the exceptions is the “recital for four musicians”, El Cimarrón, which Henze composed in 1969-70, while living in Cuba. With a text by the poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger, it’s based upon the autobiography of the Cuban Esteban Montejo, who at the age of 104 had told the story of his remarkable life as a runaway slave to the writer Miguel Barnet.

Henze and Enzensberger present this tale as an 80-minute song cycle, in which the part of El Cimarrón (a 19th-century Spanish term for a runaway slave) is taken by a baritone, accompanied by flute, guitar and a vast array of percussion. It follows Montejo from his birth through to the abolition of slavery in Cuba in 1886 – when in reality conditions on the sugar cane plantations changed very little for the workers – to the arrival of mechanisation and the corruption of church and state that eventually made revolution inevitable.

The texts are sometimes too wordy – for this rare performance they were delivered in an English translation by Christopher Keene – and the dramatic shape of the cycle is not as clear as it might be. But it’s still an engrossing work, full of imaginative colours and textures. Henze’s music is best described as eclectically expressionist; there are instrumental moments that recall Boulez’s Marteau sans Maître, while the baritone’s extended vocal techniques suggest that Henze might well have heard Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King (first performed in 1969) before starting his score.

But as this performance demonstrated, El Cimarrón is also a thrilling virtuoso vehicle for outstanding artists, like the remarkable quartet brought together at the Wigmore Hall, led by the baritone Will Liverman, whose portrayal of the central role was a tour de force of technique and stamina. Sean Shibe was the guitarist, and he, like the flautist Adam Walker, was also required to play several percussion instruments to add to the stage-filling battery of exotica assigned to Owen Gunnell – El Cimarrón is sometimes a visual treat as well as a musical one.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Sean Shibe review – a nonchalant virtuoso and boundary breaker
One of the youngest players in this series of live recitals, the Scottish guitarist moved from Bach to Reich and Maxwell Davies with irresistible style and authority

Rian Evans

03, Jun, 2020 @4:22 PM

Article image
Sonia Prina/laBarocca/Jais review – virtuoso arias from punk-rock androgyne
Prina flung around coloratura like it was a weapon, with classy support from period band laBarocca in this all-Gluck concert

Tim Ashley

29, Jun, 2016 @2:27 PM

Article image
IMS Prussia Cove Celebration review – Adès’s botanical song cycle glistens
A weekend celebrating 50 years of the Prussia Cove International Musicians Seminar included world premieres by Kurtág and Adès, with Hungarian mezzo Katalin Károlyi in compelling form

Andrew Clements

28, Nov, 2022 @11:28 AM

Article image
I Fagiolini review – virtuoso singers offer a slap-up bill of seasonal flavour
Group on mostly excellent form for Jean Françaix’s Ode à la Gastronomie, and works by Les Six and Roderick Williams

George Hall

11, Dec, 2015 @12:58 PM

Article image
András Schiff review – immaculate, immense performances
Schiff drew astounding colours from a new Bösendorfer in his thoughtful recital of late works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert

Andrew Clements

07, Apr, 2016 @2:12 PM

Article image
Angela Hewitt review – intimate and introspective Bach
The pianist brought sinewy power and energy to a solo all-Bach programme that ended not with a flourish but quiet reflection

Andrew Clements

25, Jun, 2020 @3:52 PM

Article image
Steven Isserlis/Mishka Rushdie Momen, Wigmore Hall review - joyful music making
The interplay between Mishka Rushdie Momen’s piano and Steven Isserlis’s lustrous cello was delicately matched, nothing overstated.

Martin Kettle

08, Jun, 2020 @4:06 PM

Article image
Igor Levit review – Beethoven programme affirms deep affinity
The pianist’s dynamic, live-streamed performance had all the immediacy of his twitter house concerts that became a lockdown phenomenon

Rian Evans

17, Sep, 2020 @1:04 PM

Article image
Imogen Cooper review – beautifully executed keyboard colour
Cooper’s hauntingly atmospheric encore alleviated the mood of seriousness that she brought to this programme of Schubert and Beethoven

Martin Kettle

15, Jun, 2020 @5:29 PM

Article image
Hyeyoon Park/Benjamin Grosvenor review – flawless Szymanowski
Both violin and piano showed a vast range of colours and textures in this lunchtime recital that included Franck and a memorable Schumann encore

Flora Willson

09, Jun, 2020 @4:45 PM