Performed by the same forces in 2007, Songs of Wars I have seen was a commission from Heiner Goebbels to celebrate the re-opening of the South Bank Centre.
So strong was the reaction, critical and public, on that occasion, the work has been revived just two years on.
Goebbels cleverly combines the period instruments (woodwinds and strings) of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with the modern brass and percussion of the London Sinfonietta and an amplified background of noise.
The text is taken from a book by Gertrude Stein, written in Vichy France during the Second World War. Much of it is seemingly not chosen for its power to interest a long-winded anecdote about a run-over chicken, the properties of honey but with more disturbing material such as the reflection that there’s pleasure in the thought of Italians being bombed. That’s war, I guess: a confusing mix of the sacred and profane which we of later generations haven’t had to deal with.
The music a rumbling background, slow-rolling jazz, frequent lapses into baroque sounds from Matthew Locke’s 1674 The Tempest – has a richly dramatic edge, if at times it reflects too closely the banality of Stein’s words. An element of amateurism is introduced with the text spoken by the women of the ensemble. It’s no disrespect to them to suggest that they do their day jobs infinitely better, although it could be argued that a lack of actorly declamation keeps the performance rooted in the ordinariness described.
The men are banished to the shadowy rear, the women in coloured tops at the front of the stage, surrounded by household lamps giving a domestic touch. This is music that provokes a very personal response: for me interest rather than emotional immediacy, although there’s a poignancy in the ending of meandering trumpet against the shimmering hum of massed singing-bowls.
The first half was a less immediately appealing extract from Goebbels’ Mahler-length Surrogate Cities, a misty flow through an urban landscape using another grinding background and similar excursions into the baroque but with less concession to the theatrical.
Presiding over all, the petite Estonian Anu Tali cut a figure of almost mechanical precision and there was no questioning the commitment and skills of the participating musicians.
I’m no doubt out of step with the enraptured multitude in suggesting it all veers towards the superficial, as the audience reaction was something close to ecstatic. As with Nono’s Promoteo last year, another work of now iconic status, I found myself struggling to share the enthusiasm.
The London Sinfonietta will be back at the QEH in July with Harrison Birtwistle’s new works The Corridor and Semper Dowland, following performances at the Aldeburgh Festival (review 13 June).