Mary King (mezzo-soprano)
Christopher Gillett (tenor)

London Sinfonietta
Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: 1 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Whilst this year’s Proms have rightly if somewhat predictably celebrated Mozart’s 250th-birthday and Shostakovitch’s centenary, the 80th-birthday of Hans Werner Henze has thankfully not gone unnoticed – and he does have the advantage over his illustrious colleagues of still being alive. Indeed the BBC has done Henze proud, with not only the London premiere of a recent orchestral work culled from his self-declared final opera “L’Upupa oder der Triumph der Sohnesliebe” coming up later in the season (Prom 60) but also this late-night performance of his vast 1973 song-cycle “Voices”, subtitled ‘a collection of songs for two vocalists and instrumental groups’. In fact it is hard to think of one work amongst Henze’s remarkably prolific output which so comprehensively sums up his protean stylistic and thematic concerns.

With the exception of the Heine setting ‘Heimkehr’, the other 21 songs set texts by 20th-century poets from different countries and cultures and in various languages. As the work was written during the heady years of Henze’s engagement with radical left-wing politics, it is no surprise that the central theme of the texts is oppression and the resistance of the oppressed, although a broader theme of the sanctity and beauty of human life is also here and is a thread that runs throughout Henze’s oeuvre. Interwoven with this is a recognition of the difficulties and contradictions inherent in the subject of oppression being tackled in the forum of high culture by the ‘bourgeois artist’ – Henze, the bon viveur amidst his lemon and olive groves, wearing “a Mao tunic but with plenty of money in the pockets” (Auden’s mischievous comment).

The rainbow-coalition diversity of the poets’ voices is matched by Henze in the range of musical styles on offer and the custom-made instrumental groupings specific to each song. There are however discernible strands across the cycle. One group of songs clearly seeks to continue the Weill/Eisler/Dessau tradition, with their clipped tunes and pungent orchestration featuring accordion, banjo and the like. This group would include the gripping Brecht setting ‘Keiner oder Alle’, the sardonic ‘Recht und Billig’ (to a text by Erich Fried concerning Vietnam circa 1969 but which would not be out of place in the Middle East circa 2006) and the insistent and provocative ‘Schluss’.

A second group partakes of various folk musics and archaic modality. These songs bring a leavening of tenderness amidst the prevailing anguish and clamour. The beautifully-realised ode to a dead German soldier, ‘Caino’, with its plangent ocarina and Lili Marlene references belongs in this group, as does the miniature gem ‘Il Pasi’ which draws on Italian popular song. The extended duet setting of the Brecht text ‘Legende von der Entstehung des Buches Taoteking auf dem Weg des Laotse in die Emigration’ is imbued with a wonderfully light and subtle distilling of traditional Chinese music.

There could be said to be a third strain of settings that are linked by their wildly experimental post-serial manner – the dreaded ‘avant-garde’ of yore! Certainly Ho Chi Minh’s ‘Prison Song’ belongs here, as does the mind-boggling ‘The Electric Cop’, ‘Roses and Revolutions’ and ‘Vermetung uber Hessen’. Here be bursting balloons, lo-fi tape-effects, instrumentalists shouting and foot-stamping, and Jews’ harps, with marbles dropped on piano strings and much more.

And so on. The sheer unbridled inventiveness of the music beggars belief. The list of knock-out moments would be as long as the piece itself (like Borges’s map that is so detailed that it is exactly congruent with the terrain it charts). Here are a few that spring to mind as I write – the wild rumba sign-off that improbably but so satisfyingly concludes ‘The Electric Cop’, the boobam-tormented coda to ‘42 Schulkinder’, the brooding instrumental prelude to ‘Heimkehr’ pulsing with dark echoes of Germanic Romanticism, the brass glinting in the Athenian sun in ‘Grecia 1970’, the a cappella backdrop to ‘The Worker’ sung by the instrumental players and pretty much every bar of the extraordinary final song, Enzensberger’s ‘Das Blumenfest’. This ecstatic setting of a text that is part Mayan flower festival, part hippy love-in, serves as a catharsis of hope and survival after the violence and despair of all that has preceded it. The Schumannesque vocal lines of the two singers (a final nod to an undercurrent of art-song that runs through much of “Voices”) interweave above and below a shimmering haze of bells and gongs.

Only one or two of the wackier sound-happenings sounded a little dated, otherwise the whole work came across as timelessly fresh. That is rather more than can be said for some of the texts, in particular several of the poets tend to a type of male-aggressive macho posturing, very much of its time in the revolutionary movements of the 1960s and 1970s but which has not worn well either as politics or poetry. Neither has an irritating tendency in some texts to marry an explicitly blunt verbal manner with almost wilfully obscure subject matter. (I was amused to read the warning in the programme that some of the language might be found offensive. What were the would-be offended going to do? Plug their ears during the offensive bits? Go home?)

If I have left comment on the performance until now, that is because it was the sort of great performance that sends you away with your head reeling from the work itself. Henze wrote “Voices” as a gift to the London Sinfonietta, a staunch supporter of his work since its inception; indeed the Sinfonietta’s inaugural concert had Henze’s early “Apollo et Hyazinthus” as the first item. The Sinfonietta has been performing “Voices” on special occasions ever since (I recall attending an outstanding performance at Durham University in the early 1990s).

Even at the practical level, the endless coming-and-going of the multi-tasking musicians (Musicians’ Union double-scale for everyone, surely!), both between songs and during was effortlessly realised with absolutely no faffing about of the type familiar from contemporary music concerts. We learned that not only does horn virtuoso Michael Thompson have a good singing voice but is also a fine pianist, just as violinist Clio Gould plays a mean mandolin (I think it was) and all are competent percussionists.

Oliver Knussen presided over “Voices” in his trademark sovereign but amiable manner. I found myself imagining a more rebarbative interpretation such as Ensemble Modern might bestow on the work but decided I preferred the Knussen/Sinfonietta reading which drilled down to locate the lyrical essence of “Voices” and I fancied that this would be the composer’s own preference now.

That said, any performance of “Voices” is carried or not by the soloists. There was a time in my life, during the heyday of the Almeida Festival, when I seemed to attend at least one concert a week in which Mary King was involved. As it happens I had not heard her live for several years before this concert and I was thrilled to hear that if anything her voice has got even better over those years. Her pitching was pin-point accurate, articulation crystal clear and she simply inhabited these songs. Fiercely dramatic in ‘Prison Song’, deeply moving in ‘Caino’, delicately touching in the Brecht duet and terrifying in ‘Screams’ and ‘Roses and Revolutions’. The red boa she sported and finally removed during Brecht’s ‘Thoughts of a Showgirl as She Strips’ was merely the icing on the cake, although it did draw spontaneous applause.

Christopher Gillett is a rising star in the performance of 20th-century music. His precise, mellifluous delivery was perfectly suited to the many numbers that draw to a greater or lesser extent on the German Lied tradition, if not quite so much to the wild and woolly items that felt a tad reined in. The three duet-numbers revealed that the two singers’ timbres were ideally matched.

A triumphant evening for all concerned but most of all for the mighty Henze. It is good news indeed that the pioneering Sinfonietta recording of “Voices” is soon to be released on CD for the first time. Perhaps someone in the know can explain why on the recording the tape part in ‘The Electric Cop’ has a rather wonderful passage which fuses JFK’s ‘ask not what your country can do for you’ speech with the slow movement of Sibelius’s Second Symphony. Alas, it was just ‘white noise’ at the Proms!

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