Voices, by Hans Werner Henze (1926 – 2012), London Sinfonietta, St John’s Smith’s Square London

by Jennifer Bryce

St John's Smith's Square.jpg

This concert was performed as a part of the 50th birthday celebrations of the London Sinfonietta, one of the world’s leading groups for the performance 20th and 21st Century music. David Atherton, one of the founding members of the group, conducted this performance.

London Sinfonietta

Hans Werner Henze composed both operatic and symphonic and chamber works. My impression is that his work is imbued with protest, this is perhaps because I first heard of him in reference to his The Raft of the Frigate Medusa, written as a requiem to Che Guevara. At the first performance, in 1968, students hoisted a red flag and anarchists raised a black flag. The choir refused to sing under the red flag. Henze himself led a chant of ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh’, and the performance had to be cancelled. So I associate Henze with protest!

Hans Werner Henze Voices 2

Maybe the world has changed since those times. Voices was composed in 1973, and Henze said that the order in which the poems/ libretto are arranged ‘reflect my own personal political perspective and these feelings which give the collection the cohesion, rather than any narrative or musical structure.’ Voices is a mixture of folksong styles and the classical leider tradition – I was particularly aware of intentional reference to composers such as Kurt Weill (well known for Mac the Knife) accompanying poems of Bertold Brecht. For me, the whole came together with an underlying cynicism as 22 songs ranged from  Hebarto Padille: Cuban Poets do not sleep anymore, through words from Ho Chi Minh’s prison diary, to Gino di Sanctis: Your hair/ is weed soft weed/ soft weed on the water/ straw on the water/ Why, German soldier?

Hans Werner Henze Voices 3

Mezzo Soprano Victoria Simmonds was superb, particularly, I thought, in her rendition of Thoughts of a showgirl as she strips (Brecht) and tenor Daniel Norman was also brilliant. The final song is a piece by Hans Magnus Enzensburger, Das Blumenfest: I give away flowers . . . Or I simply keep on giving him/ more and more flowers.

The fifteen-piece London Sinfonietta played conventional orchestral instruments, but most players had to double on a surprising array of percussion (at one time the oboist was playing glasses filled with varying amounts of water), banjo, harmonica, tin whistle, the men players had to form an a capella choir for The Worker: My father lies black and hushed/ Beneath white hospital sheets/ He collapsed at work . . . As they carried him out/ The whirling and buzzing and humming machines/ Applauded him . . .

Hans Werner Henze Voices 1

The music itself is a mixture of lyrical, jazz, folk synthesised into a work that is cutting, cynical and at times uplifting. The program says that in the 1970s political protest [was] deep-dyed into the very fabric of Henze’s music. I left the concert feeling that whereas on the one hand the music had evoked for me protest of the 1970s, the underlying message of Henze’s work is still intrinsic to the world today.