Seen and Heard Promenade Concert Review
Prom 25: Hans Werner Henze; Voices Mary King(mezzo soprano) Christopher Gillett (tenor), London Sinfonietta, Oliver Knussen (conductor) Royal Albert Hall, London 01.08.2006 (AO)
The social upheavals of the 1960’s unleashed a creative explosion in poetry and music, greater even than the anti-fascist music of Eisler and Brecht thirty years before. For the first time, classical composers embraced an international spirit of revolt: the voices of the poor, dispossessed and persecuted became an integral part of music, just as people’s rebellions and the anti war movement showed the power of collective action. Perhaps it says something about our world that protest music has been corrupted to shallow, synthetic pap: even Madonna and the Spice Girls have more to say than some things that pass for protest these days.
For natural radicals like Henze, Nono and Berio, protest became an artistic apotheosis. They were involved in various community ventures where socialism linked with serious, high art. They genuinely respected “the people”, and did not attempt to patronise them by dumbed down, feelgood trash. If the projects eventually ended, it was because social experiment rarely succeeds. But the music remains, reminding us that once, decades ago, politically responsible composers did have vision and the courage to express it. One day I hope the Proms will feature real music of protest, like Henze’s Raft of the Medusa, a work ideal for venues like the Royal Albert Hall, where its theatrical dimensions would be well realised. Until then, it’s wonderful that someone in the BBC chose Henze’s Voices.
is a kaleidoscope of songs from different genres, expressing
Henze’s belief in the fundamental unity of the “people”
of the world. Unlike, say, Berio, Henze doesn’t attempt
to adapt non western music into his own, because no outsider
can really assimilate forms which have evolved over centuries.
He sticks to what a westerner might relate to, such as
North and Latin American idioms. Instead, he minimalises
his writing, creating understated, unobtrusive settings,
giving the text prominence. Thus we have the
powerful “voice” of Ho Chi Minh, unadulterated by pseudo
orientalism. The Communist ideal, after all, was above
nationalism, and Henze was Communist enough to see Ho
No modernist composer has written so thoughtfully for the guitar as Henze has, and the guitar appears in nearly every song, warmly scored as if it were a human voice. Sometimes, the musicians have to hum, their very voices expanding the human aspect of orchestration. This humane quality is supported by the use of instruments like accordion and banjo, and other folk instruments so obscure they are hard to identify. In gentler songs like Il Pasi, whose poignancy has actually made me weep on occasion, the combination is exquisite.
The last time I heard Voices live, about seven years ago, songs like The electric cop and Gedanken eines Revuemädchen während des Entkleidungsaktes (Thought of a stripper as she undresses) seemed were much more overstated. There’s no way of doing The electric cop without TV influenced violence, but this time the novelty was played down in favour of brutality, and all the more effective for that. Alas, Mary King didn’t make a convincing stripper. It’s a piece where the personality of the singer really makes an impact – just as in strip clubs, the feather boa is a sop for the johns who don’t get that there’s a real person behind the object they exploit. It’s doubly ironic. In her recording, Roswitha Trexler managed to evoke a kind of suppressed anger behind the sham boredom.
I liked King’s Prison Song, where she brought out the dichotomy in the writing. Henze sets the “oppressor” words like “monster”, “irons devour” as contorted screams, while the words linked to the prisoner, like “legs of people” are intoned with warmth and release. Singing together in duet, King and Gillett projected more depth. It was welcome in the curious Das Blumenfast, which, as a poem works better on paper than spoken. Henze gets around this by curling the vocal line around the stylised format, the voices sometimes together, sometimes alternating, often reinforced with a strange blown instrument, which mimics the voice yet is bizarrely ethereal.
Altogether, this performance worked better on a non vocal level, though, which was a disappointment because the vocal parts really should be in the foreground in poems as direct as these. I don’t think the singers were holding back because obscenities in the text were being broadcast live on public radio. King, like the tenor Christopher Gillett, is a good enough singer, but realistically, it is expecting too much of most singers to want perfection in a series of songs as stylistically varied as these. Indeed, since the technical demands are not that extreme, I wonder if these songs might be suited to less classically referenced voices. Songs which harked to the Brecht/Eisler tradition, such as Keiner oder alle, which Eisler set particularly trenchantly, indicate that Henze appreciated the German roots of agitprop, while ostensibly rejecting the German ethos for many personal reasons. The only recording worth getting is the version with Trexler and Joachim Vogt, conducted by Horst Neumann and made in Leipzig in 1978/9, before the Wende, and when Eisler’s legacy of protest against tyranny definitely had relevance.
The BBC’s remit is to “educate, inform and entertain”. Did this courageous Prom succeed on that level? I’m not sure, given that some people walked out. After all, it was hard going in a long evening, and it was not the most attention grabbing of performances, being so understated. The programme notes were also somewhat uninspiring. But Henze’s music matters because it’s really about the human condition, and compassion. Subversive or not, that’s a message we shouldn’t ever forget.