Musical comradeship produces a triumphant account of El Cimarrón at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Henze, El Cimarrón: Will Liverman (baritone), Adam Walker (flute), Sean Shibe (guitar), Owen Gunnell (percussion). Wigmore Hall, London, 11.3.2023. (MB)

Will Liverman © Wigmore Hall

I had waited a long, long time for a performance of Henze’s ‘recital for four musicians’ from 1969-70, El Cimarrón. Like other works from the zenith of Henze’s political commitment, it seems largely to be shunned by today’s performers and venues. Hats off, then, to both the Wigmore Hall and to the four musicians involved in this performance, baritone Will Liverman, percussionist Owen Gunnell, flautist Adam Walker and guitarist Sean Shibe, the last two doubling up on various percussion instruments throughout, both for putting on a performance at all and for giving so fine an account of the work. In a sense, one either does this properly or one does not do it at all, but that does not mean one should merely take for granted performing excellence.

Any idea that El Cimarrón might seem merely dated was thus triumphantly despatched. Many of our ideas concerning cultural appropriation might have changed in the meantime, but the urgency of its message concerning capitalist-imperialist exploitation in general and enslavement of black people in particular, remains at least as apparent as ever. Moreover, Henze’s method of letting escaped slave Esteban Montejo’s testimony essentially speak for itself – albeit with that testimony noted first by the Cuban ethnologist Miguel Barnet, translated into German by Hans Magnus Enzensbeger no less, here further translated into English by Christopher Keene – holds up pretty well in terms of what we might consider respectful, whilst leaving open the question, as Henze explicitly acknowledged concerning works written at this time, of ‘bourgeois’ aesthetic value.

The idea arose from a conversation Henze and Enzensberger had had round about 1968, concerning ‘the difficulties of writing political songs which would go beyond, or circumvent the achievements of Eisler, Weill, or Dessau’ (Henze). Henze thought some sort of song-cycle a likely result, but in the end El Cimarrón turned out to be, at least according to his understanding, ‘a trial run for a new type of concert’. This, I think, gave a flavour of that: recitation, some song, elements of music theatre, above all a testimony arising from true ensemble cooperation that ‘cannot be done in a few days of rehearsal’, not least when it comes to the necessity for the players to invent music themselves, ‘where only a “graphic” serves as clue, stimulus or signpost’.

We could not know, of course, at least without detailed knowledge and memory of the score, quite what was notated and how. Nevertheless, a sense not only of ensemble, but of comradeship, emerged. There was no doubt that these were players who were listening closely to one another, listening moreover that was not only instinctive but had also been learned through a political process of rehearsal. The vast array of instruments before our eyes and ears was a mise-en-scène in itself, but also an invitation to a world partly known yet also quite new. Liverman’s move in the first song, ‘The World’, from wordless song to recitation, at times quite Schoenbergian – Henze, however much he distanced himself, could never help himself here – conveyed meaning both through words but also via their means and variety of delivery. Yet it was equally in the interludes, in instrumental transition, as so often in such music, that a good deal of the journey was to be had — and to be reflected upon.

Elsewhere, music could be frankly pictorial; we all knew what inhuman catastrophe Liverman’s chains depicted, but there was far more: Jew’s harp ‘which represents the stars in comic strips that, on such occasions, dance in front of the eyes of the injured party’; pounding African drums offering a truth in sharp contradistinction to that of imported, Roman Catholic priests, Henze and Montejo having no time whatsoever for the hypocrisy, economic, sexual, and otherwise, of the latter. It could also, however, effect mood and drama, for instance, in Montejo’s flight into the mountains — even though, perhaps especially though, this was not a straightforwardly dramatic piece.

For me, the reflective and revolutionary centre came later than the mid-point; ‘The Rebellion’, ninth of fifteen numbers, went further, deeper, into something approaching true melancholy. The ensuing ecstasy of redress, of revenge, at ‘The Battle of Mal Tiempo’ was highly infectious. Agitprop? If so, it worked. An equally strong impression was made by ‘The Bad Victory’, which followed, the unease of its darkly military parade showing us everything was certainly not what it seemed. And if sounds from the opening returned at the end, this was not to denote something banally cyclical. As Henze explained, and as we seemed to feel, ‘the pre-revolutionary situation is reinstated, looking backwards is ruled out, everything is now directed forward towards a new identity’.

Not long before El Cimarrón, Henze had resolved that he would no longer write, as he feared he might have fallen into doing, merely for himself and his friends, but rather ‘to help socialism’; that doing so would involving both embodying in his work ‘all the problems of contemporary bourgeois music,’ and transforming them ‘into something that the masses can understand’. That would not involve submitting to commercial considerations, but nor was there any ‘place for worry about losing elite notions of value’. From the beginning, that has led some to question the artistic and/or enduring ‘value’ of such interventions. To experience, however, something that spoke so vividly, if necessarily from its time, to the age of Black Lives Matter proved a necessary surprise and, in its way, a proper call to arms.

Let us hope, then, that this will mark the beginning of many such opportunities, in London and elsewhere. What next? Perhaps the ‘vaudeville’ La Cubana, or the ‘show for 17 performers’, Der langwierige Weg in die Wohnung Natascha Ungeheuers? Simon Rattle performed Henze’s Che Guevara requiem Das Floss der Medusa in Berlin in 2006; might he wish (and be enabled) to bring it to the London Symphony Orchestra’s repertoire? (Its celebrated non-premiere, halted by police, might make interesting material for a drama of its own.) Surely it is long past time for the Royal Opera to revive Henze’s collaboration with Edward Bond We Come to the River, or indeed to stage one of Henze’s earlier or later operas. König Hirsch would come top of my list. As Henze’s 2026 centenary nears, a coordinated offering would be just the thing. One can dream…

Mark Berry

Leave a Comment