Henze’s ‘Voices’, BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall

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As well as the main concerts there is also a “red eye” late-night Prom once a week or so. This is when the BBC Proms offer some of their most interesting programmes, usually of early or contemporary music, to music-loving night birds.

On Tuesday the single work was Hans Werner Henze’s 100-minute song cycle Voices, getting its first Proms outing. This is one of Henze’s most important works of the 1970s and, although well known by reputation, it does not often get performed. Voices follows in the line of Henze’s earlier political statements, although the angry young man mood has softened – there is less pro-communist or anti-war confrontation, more a lone artist’s reflection on the suffering of man.

Poets such as Brecht and Ungaretti rub shoulders with four black Americans and Ho Chi Minh. Political oppression is everywhere, the songs tell us, and Henze’s settings respond by embracing musical styles of the world, from samba to art song, from delicate chinoiserie to Kurt Weill’s sophisticated political irony.

The London Sinfonietta, effortlessly conducted by Oliver Knussen, achieved marvels with it, with some musicians running between different instruments – including wine glasses, popping balloons, bamboo flute and Trinidadian steel drum. Mary King was the versatile mezzo-soprano/ cabaret artiste and Christopher Gillett the hard-working tenor – when we could hear him.

As always with Henze, Voices has much to say and says it with brilliant virtuosity. But the words are not always audible; the constant rearrangement of the players necessitates pauses between songs, negating any cumulative effect; and, too often, similar poems are presented in a similar way. Reduce the playing time to 60 minutes and this could be a political cry of pain that aims straight at the heart. Or was it just that, as the stroke of 12 approached, we were all starting to wane? ★★★☆☆

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