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Two Worlds Bridged

The first performance of
Heiner Goebbels' 'Songs of Wars I have Seen',
reviewed by MALCOLM MILLER


There was an enthusiastic reception for the world première of Songs of Wars I have Seen, the latest music-theatre 'happening' by the exciting iconoclastic German composer Heiner Goebbels, performed at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall on 12 July 2007 conducted with riveting aplomb by Sian Edwards. The work would be unconventional enough merely as a confrontation and synthesis of disparate elements, which Goebbels calls 'two worlds', the Baroque world of Mathew Locke's The Tempest (1674), here played with refined sensuousness by strings of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and that of the pluralistic avant-garde in which the London Sinfonietta projected a mixture of idioms from jazz, to minimalism to atonal, complemented with some atmospheric electronic processing and synthesizers. Yet add to that mixture spoken readings from Gertrude Stein's World War II autobiography Wars I have Seen, written during her time in France in 1942-3, and the potential of the genre expands exponentially, the musical dislocation illuminated in Stein's notion of the recurrence of history.

To underline the swerve into the realms of literary theatricality, the stage was divided into a Baroque foreground of women, and a contemporary background (the London Sinfonietta brass and percussion players) of men; the concert stage was adorned with a few well chosen, relevant props, small forties style table lamps for the players, and bowls which the players stir in the final scene that suggest both the monotony of wartime cooking as a symbol of endurance, and Tibetan prayer bowls, a more exotic layer of experience conveyed in the shimmering, reverberating resonance of almost electronic timbre.

Setting the broader context of the war-time scenario and the contrast of idioms, the first half featured a Baroque and a contemporary musical commentary on war. The first was Biber's colouful Battalia a 10 of 1673, in which the OAE's vivid dynamic contrasts and articulation elicited exciting bite especially in the witty drunken sliding around in the second movement -- 'The Dissolute Gathering with al Kinds of Humour' -- rife with out of tune folk songs from different European countries. Then, after a beautifully poised Andante, the March tune was boldly intoned by a violin imitating a fife over a double bass impersonation of a military drum; yet the final lament, with its overlapping suspensions and daringly unpredictable chromatic side steps, capped it with suitably moralistic 17th century sobriety.

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Copyright © 19 July 2007 Malcolm Miller, London UK


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