Just like the old days! Atherton and the London Sinfonietta Excel in Henze’s Voices


Henze: Victoria Simmonds (mezzo-soprano); Daniel Norman (tenor); Sound Intermedia; London Sinfonietta / David Atherton (conductor). St John’s, Smith Square, London, 11.10.2017. (CC)

Henze – Voices

Just like the old days! The Sinfonietta under Atherton in probing, challenging music, as so many of us enjoyed: for myself, it all began in the 1980s at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. By necessity the location was now St John’s, but there is no doubting that the Sinfonietta has lost none of its expertise. The sheer joy of not only being challenged by this music but experiencing it in the most secure of hands is near-inexpressible. The large and enthusiastic audience might be seen as a sign of general agreement on that, perhaps?

Henze’s Voices of 1973, itself a London Sinfonietta commission, is a huge collection of songs. Less a cycle, more a statement of Henze’s own “personal political perspective and emotional involvement”, he explains that it is this that gives the collection its “cohesion”. Henze’s musical vocabulary is huge, from intense serial and post-serial writing to clear references to the Weimar of Weill/Eisler/Dessau. Scored for two vocalists and an “augmentable” core of 15 players, Henze’s ear seems to know no bounds. Players are requested to hum, talk and sing (on one memorable occasion in movement 17, members of the Sinfonietta formed an a capella chorus ).

As one might expect, this is more a procession of pieces rather than a cogent cycle in the Schubertian tradition. The choice of texts, of course, given the composer is often politically motivated. The selection ranges from Herberto Padilla and Miguel Barnet (Union of Cuban Writers and Artists) via Brecht and Calvin C. Hernton to Mario Tobino, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Heine. A kaleidoscopic collage, then, that demands to be heard in its entirety: the concert lasted for over two hours, with one interval.

Victoria Simonds (who sang in Benjamin’s Written on Skin at Covent Garden in January), gave her all, whether in concert garb or red feather boa-ed and black gloved in the splendid “Gedanken eines Revuemädchens während des Entkleidungsatkes” (the gloves came off), or screaming (“Screams (Interlude)”, No.16). She was simply brilliant in capturing the atmosphere of the distorted waltz of “Para aconsejar a una dama” (No.18) and in negotiating the difficulty of co-existing in a huge registral separation with Enno Senft’s superb double-bass in “Roses und Revulutions” (No.19), The lyric beauty of “Caino” (No.7) was stunning, every word perfectly enunciated and entrancing in Henze’s delicious scoring (foregrounding the guitar of Huw Davies); similarly the tender, lyrical “Grecia 1970” (No.10) reminded us of the the sheer range of Henze, the composer.

Tenor Daniel Norman also threw himself at Henze’s demands, full of energy in the refrain of “Alles oder nichts” in “Keiner oder alla” (the third song), amplified in “The Electric Cop” and imposing in “Vermutung über Hessen” (No.20). Together, Simmonds and Norman made a formidable team, not least in the fabulous, playful “Legende von der Entstehung des Buches Taoteking auf dem Weg des Lasote in die Emigration” (Legend of the origin of the book Tao Te Chin on Lao Tzu’s way into exile) that ends the first part.

Expertly conducted by David Atherton, this was live performance of Henze at its finest, a reminder that this music remains vital to this day. The electronics were well managed by the SoundIntermedia team of Ian Dearden and David Sheppard). Henze himself recorded this piece in 1978 (review).

Colin Clarke

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  1. Rob Harries says:

    Something’s not right here. The second paragraph says that Henze’s ‘Voices’ was composed in 1973 but the last sentence of the review says that Henze made a recording of it in 1970.

    All the same, it sounds like a fascinating concert.

    • Jim Pritchard says:

      S&H is always grateful for readers casting a forensic eye over our reviews. I believe this is now correct.

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