Songs of Wars I Have Seen
New Auditorium, RSNO Centre, Glasgow
You just wonder which came first: the RSNO and Dunedin Consort dreaming up their intriguing initiative to work together creating a subsidiary partnership series within the former’s main season; or whether such hybrid works as Heiner Goebbels’ Songs of Wars I Have Seen – which integrates period instruments with modern – sparked the idea of this slightly madcap collaboration in the first place.
Either way, Saturday’s mongrel presentation in the more intimate RSNO nerve-centre, the New Auditorium, within Glasgow Royal Concert Hall provided both a sense of respite within the RSNO’s heavy duty symphonic output, and an evangelical platform for the excellent Dunedin players (strings and continuo) to showcase their stylistic versatility to a more diverse audience.
The work, itself, was thoroughly refreshing – a 19-strong mixed ensemble piece based on spoken extracts (read variously by the musicians themselves) from Gertrude Stein’s Wartime Diaries, contained within a living room stage-set of assorted lamps and tables, and brightly illuminated by Goebbels’ eccentric score. The displacement of the musicians – early music contingent to the fore, the more raucous wind, brass and percussion behind them – emphasised the music’s stylistic elasticity.
It’s a musical solution Stein’s arbitrary reflections welcome, her thoughts ranging from the most mundane aspects of wartime (the replacement of sugar with honey) to its frightening realism and futility, either in the here-and-now or in the context of history repeating itself.
In responding to the latter, Goebbels incorporates actual music from the troublesome 17th century by Matthew Locke, which is where the most striking juxtapositions in this performance occurred. Such magical, silken moments from the Dunedin Consort were like historical parentheses, misty cameos imbued with a ghostly intensity.
These were especially effective within the overall context of Goebbels’ wider musical adventure, which shifted restively in character. The idiomatic mutability of this performance was its defining strength, very much a high-end cabaret concoction of funky modernism, smokey jazz, even spacey electronics. Conductor Ellie Slorach’s sizzlingly taut direction ensured that every minute counted.
And for all that Stein’s words often seemed to matter less at times than their musical response, the overall impact was quite compelling and strangely moving.