28 April 2009, Andrew Clements, The Guardian
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
First performed two years ago, Heiner Goebbels's Songs of Wars I Have Seen was by a long way the most impressive of the works commissioned to mark the reopening of the Royal Festival Hall. Composed for a combination of modern and period-instrument orchestras - the London Sinfonietta and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment - it won't be performed very often, especially as it also dictates that a high proportion of the players have to be female. But for the final event in the Southbank Centre's Ether 09 the two groups came together again, and Songs of Wars I Have Seen formed the second half of an all-Goebbels programme. The work's gentle beauty proves just as absorbing as it was before. The basic conceit - that the women in the orchestras put down their instruments in turn to read selections from Gertrude Stein's diary of life in Vichy France during the second world war - lends domestic intimacy to Stein's matter-of-fact descriptions and quirky anecdotes. The ensemble embroider and punctuate the readings, and a series of long, sinuous solos is threaded through the textures; occasionally, the women unite like a chanting Greek chorus, to magical effect. Before Wars I Have Seen, the London Sinfonietta was conducted by the excellent Anu Tali in Goebbels's Sampler Suite, orchestral movements extracted from the evening-long, multilayered Surrogate Cities of 1994. Sampled instrumental sounds, manipulated to sound like urban industrial noise, form the backdrop to the riffs and pulsing surfaces of Goebbels's orchestral writing; taken from their original context the movements lose some of their evocative might, but the imagination powering them is unmistakable.
on: Songs of Wars I have seen (Music Theatre)