Nowadays, when there are ensembles that can bring specialist performing expertise to the music of almost every historical era, itâs hard to imagine how radical the idea of setting up a British orchestra specifically to play 20th-century works really was in Britain in the 1960s. But when the London Sinfonietta gave its first concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, in January 1968, with a programme that included the world premiere of John Tavenerâs exuberant, fantastical dramatic cantata The Whale, the orchestra that had been the brainchild of university contemporaries Nicholas Snowman and David Atherton, found that it had the field virtually to itself.
British new music in the late-60s was nothing like the multi-layered, diversifying culture it seems to be today. Then as now, the BBC certainly did its bit, both with its orchestras and in its studio-based invitation concerts, but the London Sinfonietta not only carved out its own distinctive niche at home but over the following decade it was able to establish itself as one of the most vital forces on the European new-music scene, not only playing a huge range of 20th-century works, from the modernists onwards, but also setting new standards for how that music should be performed.
A comprehensive festival devoted to the instrumental and chamber works of Schoenberg and his pupil Roberto Gerhard was one of the most ambitious early Sinfonietta projects. Through the 70s and 80s the orchestra went on to mount celebrations of the music of Kurt Weill and of the Manchester group â Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle and Alexander Goehr. But it was perhaps the list of composers who regularly worked with and wrote for the ensemble that really defined its importance. Itâs a list that reads like a roll-call of the leading members of the European post-war avant-garde, including Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, GyÃ¶rgy Ligeti, Witold LutosÅawski and Iannis Xenakis.
Itâs undeniable that over the last two decades, the Sinfonietta has lost of some of that lustre and pre-eminence. Even in the UK it no longer rules the new-music roost, with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in particular matching it for flexibility, expertise and enterprise, while there are now also outstanding and long-established new-music ensembles right across Europe â Ensemble InterContemporain in Paris, Ensemble Modern in Frankfurt, Klangforum Wien in Vienna â many of which are also much better funded than their British counterparts these days.
Yet the Sinfoniettaâs importance in British music over the last half century is certainly something to celebrate and it is marking that anniversary with a season that looks both forwards and back. The series began with the revival of a work that, perhaps more than any other of the 350 it has so far commissioned, epitomises the virtuosity and versatility of the orchestra and the pioneering spirit of its early years â Hans Werner Henzeâs Voices, which the Sinfonietta premiered in 1974 with the composer himself conducting.
Voices is a concert-length collection of 22 settings for mezzo and tenor of poems in German, English, Spanish and Italian, selected, Henze said, to reflect his own âpersonal political perspective and emotional involvementâ. Itâs not really a song cycle, more a song book, an anthology, from which groups of songs can be extracted and performed separately. This, though, was a complete performance, with Atherton returning to the orchestra to conduct, and Victoria Simmonds and Daniel Norman the soloists.
As well as being a perfect showcase for the talents of the orchestra â alongside their own instruments, the 15 players have to perform on an exotic variety of flutes and whistles, bells, balloons and even tuned wine glasses â the work is also in many ways Henzeâs personal manifesto of political and musical beliefs. The score is as polyglot as the texts themselves, but just as poems by Brecht feature prominently, so itâs the brittle, satirical world of Weimar cabaret and composers such as Weill and Hanns Eisler who fed from it that haunts many of the songs. Elsewhere, the settings flirt with the boundaries of music theatre, and invoke the expressionist extremes of the revolutionary agitprop pieces Henze had composed in the previous decade, but there are quieter, backward glances to the fine-spun lyricism of his vocal works of the 1950s.
Itâs a wonderfully diverse collection; the quality is certainly uneven but there are only a handful of real duds. The performance under Atherton was outstanding, with the Sinfonietta players meeting all the unusual demands of the score â including forming a male-voice chorus for one number â with total aplomb. Simmonds and Norman vividly matched that versatility too, whether moving into smoochy, smoky cabaret style, or streetwise American, or providing reminders that first and foremost Henze was a composer in the great German lyric tradition, whose word-setting could also be immensely sensitive and profoundly beautiful.