Songs of Wars I Have Seen

Battalia à 10
Schlachtenbeschreibung [UK premiere]
Songs of Wars I Have Seen [World premiere]

Roderick Williams (baritone)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
London Sinfonietta
Sian Edwards

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 12 July, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

It was a great idea in principle. Two short but eventful and complementary pieces on the concept of war, followed by the premiere of a wholly contrasted approach to the same concept by one of the most resourceful and subversive composers of the middle generation. What resulted was a concert that, regrettably in this instance, turned out rather differently from that which had been intended.

Still, the first half unfolded impressively – opening with the Battalia (1673) that Heinrich Biber wrote at a time when the Austrian empire was under threat by the French to the West and the Turks to the East. In barely 10 minutes, Biber conjures a graphic image of the preparation, the engagement and the aftermath of war; with an attention to detail such as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment realised with due immediacy. Taking its cue from revolutionary effects that Monteverdi introduced half-a-century before into his “Combatimento a Tancredi e Clorinda”, Biber’s piece looks forward to the grandiose landscape of the ‘Battle’ half of Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory some 150 years later.

A pity this latter could not be included here (the OAE would no doubt have relished its challenges), as it would have bridged the gap between Biber and the piece by Heiner Goebbels that followed. Adapted from his opera “Landscape with Distant Relatives” (2002), “Schlachtenbeschreibung” (Battle Description)is a pungent setting of a text by Leonardo da Vinci telling of how artists might realistically portray a battle scene. The text itself is the more unnerving for the objectivity that Leonardo evinces in his observations, and Goebbels has matched this with music the more involving for its very restraint. It helped to have Roderick Williams’s burnished tones to lead one through this catalogue of death and destruction, and with the London Sinfonietta responding keenly to Sian Edwards’s incisive direction.

The scene was thus set for the Goebbels premiere in the second half. Bringing together period and modern ensembles is not a new idea, and Goebbels has chosen to vary it by having the OAE field an all-female complement of woodwind and strings, plus continuo; and the Sinfonietta an all-male team of brass and percussion, plus sampler. The text of the work is drawn from Gertrude Stein’s “Wars I Have Seen” – observations on war from an everyday perspective that are made the more affecting as women talk mundanely about war and consider its effects on those around them.

Goebbels has stated he took this as the cue for music that eschews grand rhetoric, and in which the tone is “quite light”. What transpired, however, was of such stultifying non-eventfulness that tedium set in relatively quickly and was hardly relieved over the work’s 57-minute duration. Most of the OAE players had their say, dovetailing their commentaries – which included passages of unison speaking and sung fragments – into the texture. Yet given that their spoken contributions had precious little expressive impact, and the instrumental writing – with its wan melodic motifs and listless ostinatos – had precious little substance, such efforts as they expended seemed largely in vain. For their part, the Sinfonietta players were reduced to providing a strangely unfocused sonic backdrop which only came into its own with the ‘last post’ trumpet soliloquy that at least brought the proceedings to an affecting conclusion. Extracts from Matthew Locke’s incidental music to “The Tempest” went for little when the discussion centred on Shakespeare’s descriptions of war, while the uniformity of pace and lack of incident did not emphasise the text’s hidden depths so much as obscure them completely.

In short, an arresting concept that failed not through shortcomings in performance (which was never less than committed) but by a compositional approach that fell abjectly short of its intent. The fact that such a concept could not have been so timely only makes this failing the more unfortunate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content