September 3, 2006
...The same could never be said of the music of Hans Werner Henze - least of all his atmospheric Five Messages for the Queen of Sheba, given its London premiere at Tuesday's Prom by the Orchestre National de France under Kurt Masur. This 20-minute suite derives from the 80-year-old Henze's latest (and, he says, last) opera, The Hoopoe, a riotous reduction of the 1,001 Nights premiered in Salzburg in 2003, but yet to be staged in this country. This, according to Arabian mythology, was the bird that carried messages from King Solomon to the eponymous Queen, not herself a character in the opera, but the recipient of five lush, seductive musical missives, full of Henze's trademark wit and zest. From percussive exotica via brooding saxophones to a frantic fandango, abandoned enough to accommodate even the seasonal chirrup of a mobile phone, this tantalising digest whets the appetite for the opera itself. Predictably, however, it paled into insignificance beside the ensuing, imposing performance of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, the 'Leningrad', a stern reminder that music can be as didactic as it is diverting.