There are lots of new
record labels about, but Explore Records
is special. They focus on important
recordings that haven’t made the transfer
to CD. For the first time in years,
we’ll be able to get hold of this material
without having to track down playable
LPs (or LP players). Fortunately, Musicweb
can supply their catalogue.
This release is the
premiere recording of Hans Werner Henze’s
Voices. It’s conducted by the
composer himself, and performed by the
London Sinfonietta, for whom it was
written. This alone would make it a
must-hear, but on its own merits it
is by far the most lucid and idiomatic
performance. For years I’ve praised
the only other worthwhile version, conducted
by Horst Neumann in Leipzig, also from
1978/9 with Roswitha Trexler and Joachim
Vogt. It’s on the Classics label but
there’s also one conducted by Johannes
Kalitzke on CPO 999 192. But a friend
said this version was by far better.
He’s absolutely right. While the Neumann
reflects the older German agitprop tradition,
this version is far more modern, much
more in tune with Henze’s essential
new music and international outlook.
This year (2006), the work was performed
at the Proms review
and some critics dismissed it, suggesting
that it was dated. If only they’d heard
this livelier version! This performance
is spirited and vivacious, and the music
is as fresh, and as relevant, as the
day it was written. If all releases
by Explore are as good as this, we are
in for exciting times.
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, Tan Dun,
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’s Prison Song,
unadulterated by pseudo-orientalism.
The only exotic touch here is the simple,
reedy flute melody, which could belong
in any Third World culture.
it helps, Henze incorporates styles
that extend the impact of his songs.
His many years of living in Italy have
informed his writing style, so he adapts
Italian folk idioms with ease. Caino
is a song from the Italian wartime
Resistance. The poem is about a German
soldier, lying dead by a stream, his
hair flowing in the current like a "soft
weed". Flute, guitar and accordion
provide a minimal, but plaintive background,
as winding and limpid as the stream.
Sarah Walker’s voice captures the pathos,
but there’s no mistaking, when she sings
"Perchè, soldato tedesco?",
that this is a powerful anti-war statement,
even though it sympathises with a dead
enemy. The notorious Electric Cop
isn’t fake Americana so much as a savage
collage of images from television and
bad movies. It is a song which can easily
descend into embarrassing corniness.
Until now, it was my least favourite
in the set. I’d fast forward when it
came on. However, this performance has
made me realize just how coherent it
is, musically and conceptually. Henze
puts in gunshots and a tape of a political
rally, not for mere effect, but because
he’s building up a dense collage showing
how we’re assaulted constantly by mindless
sound. Paul Sperry’s singing shows how
carefully Henze has caught the idiomatic,
broken lines of the poem. The flamboyant
Hispanic ending suddenly makes sense.
It’s joyful dance, complete with maracas
and horns, coherently expresses something
real, unlike the barrage of sound that’s
come earlier. Having Henze conduct probably
made all the difference to this masterful
panorama is a vision of all humanity,
despite the vignettes of America, Italy
or Germany. Tellingly, one of the most
passionate performances is Sperry’s
account of the murder of 42 schoolchildren.
During the Vietnam war "What
have we learned", he intones
ominously, "From Guernica and
from Poland. From Coventry, Stalingrad,
Dresden, Nagasaki, Suez, Salkiet?".
I first heard this song in a film about
Voices, where images of bombs
and maimed children filled the screen.
The impact was such that I’ve never
forgotten it, nor recaptured the impact
from other performances. On this disc
though, it’s overwhelming. Although
I can’t be sure, I vaguely remember
that this was the recording used in
the film. Chances are, it was. This
version is truly visceral.
Voices was written
to capitalize on the London Sinfonietta’s
formidable strengths, their chamber
sensitivity and their fluency with unusual
instruments. Henze uses two or three
solo instruments in groups, creating
textures which shift weightlessly as
one group gives way to another. The
double bass frequently provides an anchor
holding lines together – there’s almost
no drumming, and even the brass is played
with restraint. . 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, harmonica,
mandolin and recorder, all humble instruments
that don’t need virtuoso players per
se. When played as sensitively in
ensemble as this, they become compelling.
For example, in the song The Worker,
a man is killed in an industrial accident.
The machines don’t stop, but continue
"whirling and buzzing and humming".
This is evoked in the accompaniment,
literally hummed by the orchestra, sounding
at once like machines and like a strange
church choir. The man may be humble
but the song makes him noble. The Sinfonietta
is infinitely better suited to this
music than Neumann’s East German orchestra.
There really is no comparison. They
are in an altogether different league.
The Sinfonietta is perhaps one of the
most important new music ensembles in
the world. The avant-garde is the natural
element in which they thrive. In their
hands, Voices comes alive, vibrant
with inventiveness and fluency. In this
case, being conducted by Henze himself
– no mean conductor, despite his pre
eminence as a composer – must have been
inspiring. There’s a real sense here
that all are working together towards
the same vision. The enthusiasm is infectious
– it’s hard to imagine anyone thinking
this version of Voices is dull.
The soloists, Paul
Sperry and Sarah Walker are superb.
This isn’t music for conservatoire voices,
since it’s supposed to reflect the common
man. There’s no need to belt things
out like Lotte Lenya – Henze’s music
is just too sophisticated and subtle
for that treatment. Trexler and Vogt
were influenced by their understanding
of the German tradition of political
cabaret which stresses direct communication.
Thus their approach has validity. Sperry
and Walker, however, are far more focused
on the modern aspects of the music.
Henze may have roots in the German tradition,
but he goes further musically than Weill
or Eisler could ever have imagined.
Thus Walker understands the inner dynamic
of Screams (Interlude). There’s
more to it than just screaming. She
has a feel for phrasing and the variation
of nuance, making sense of the way the
music shapes the poems’ fractured images.
Like some of the other poems in this
set it’s not very good, but what Henze
does with it makes it a work of art,
and Walker shows us how. Walker is a
much under-appreciated musician, whose
down-to-earth commonsense and sense
of humour allow her to approach this
most esoteric group of songs and bring
out their simple humanity. Her voice
moves from warmth to anguish, yet never
loses its flexibility and sense of conviction.
These are not easy songs by any means,
and being one of the first interpreters,
she had to understand them from within.
Paul Sperry is extremely
good, too. In Vermutung über
Hessen, he curls his voice around
the devious syntax "gutgläubige
falten die Finger inning um Knüppel
jetzt". It’s a miniature tour
de force, for he sings against a cacophonic
background of sounds imitating machines
and the sound of a loud hailer addressing
a crowd and police whistles. Yet the
ebb and flow of this song is important
– it veers between wild marches and
ironic detachment. Again, a sense of
irony brings out the true savagery of
these texts. In Schluss, the
orchestra imitates something between
an oompah band and a bouzouki troupe,
but Sperry’s singing makes clear that
the nihilistic message is anything but
complacent. Together, Walker and Sperry
are very good indeed too, for the key
duets, Das wirkliche Messer and
Das Blumenfest, depend on a complex
intertwining of their voices.
These last few weeks,
I’ve been blessed by a surfeit of excellent
recordings and can hardly believe my
good luck. But this recording really
is special. We are all lucky that Explore
has made it readily available at last.