Every year the Munich Chamber Orchestra (MKO) give a living composer the opportunity to select an entire programme of their works and works by other composers that were important to them. The MKO Carte Blanche series gives audiences the opportunity to hear the various voices of a single composer through a series of their works, rather than hearing just one work by a composer whose music you may struggle to hear live again. This year it was the turn of German composer Heiner Goebbels. Although he is best known as a composer for the theatre, especially for his collaborations with the East German writer and playwright Heiner Müller, Goebbels concert works have received Grammy awards, and been performed throughout the world by ensembles such as the London Sinfonietta and musikFabrik.

Heiner Goebbels © Matthias Graben / WAZ FotoPool 2012
Heiner Goebbels
© Matthias Graben / WAZ FotoPool 2012

While the pieces played this evening were indeed concert works, there was a strong theatrical element throughout. The first piece, In the Country of Last Things, is a setting of two texts by the American writer Paul Auster, drawn from his novel of the same name. The text, which discusses (in somewhat vacant terms) the reality of living in a modern city, was recited by the MKO’s principal viola player Kelvin Hawthorne from his seat in the orchestra. Hawthorne’s delivery was perhaps a little too detached, though his remoteness heightened the eeriness of the endless, walking pizzicato bass, and the murky harmony.

Sandwiched into the two halves of this work were the Fünf Orchesterstücke by the East German composer Hanns Eisler. Written in 1938, these pieces for chamber orchestra are short and characterful, ranging from a slow and contemplative interlude to an almost Mahlerian scherzo. Although the style of these pieces is superficially conservative for the time, with distinct genre pieces and a generally tonal language, there is something more to them than that. While Mahler’s symphonies use set pieces to give a sense of nostalgia, Eisler’s five pieces show the fragility of life in 1930s Germany. This life, pieced together in the wake of the First World War, seems at first like the one which came before, but its instability is tangible, and the threat of collapse is all too real.

Before the interval came Befreiung, for speaker and ensemble. Samples of “non-musical” sounds mix with rock-styled music, with a rhythmic but incredibly dramatic delivery of the German text from actress Inga Busch. The mixture of sampled and amplified live sounds combines into an elaborate aural collage, where the origin of the sounds becomes uncertain. The passionate delivery of this incredibly angry music from actress and orchestra alike was enthralling, and so immediate that it had me gripping the edge of my seat. The virtuosic playing of leader Daniel Giglberger throughout this incredibly difficult music showed him to be a violinist of the highest calibre, finding the deep-seated emotion behind the notes.

The final piece of the evening was once again in English, Goebbels’ musical setting of readings from Songs of Wars I Have Seen by Gertrude Stein. This work, commissioned and premiered by the London Sinfonietta in 2007, is as much a piece of theatre as a concert work. The stage was bedecked with table lamps, and lit additionally from above by bare lightbulbs, giving the feeling of being in someone’s living room as they shared stories with you about their experiences of war and its aftermath. The voices of Stein’s texts are all female, and so the main orchestra – string quintet, wind quintet, harp and theorbo – also consisted entirely of women, who, in addition to playing, read sections of the texts. Goebbels’ plethora of styles and fluidity in using them was manifest here, with Baroque-style music sitting up against electronic samples and Reich-style minimalism without ever jarring. At times we heard echoes of the contemporary jazz that we heard in the first piece; at others one could almost imagine the music had been written by Britten. The sense of timelessness this created made the hour-long performance seem somehow to be over in an instant, and the excellent playing of the orchestra, combined with their poignant delivery of the texts (read convincingly in English by the German orchestra) drew you in from first note to last. When a piece requires not only the complete musical commitment of the players, but also the total and unerring emotional commitment required of an actor, works can so often fall flat, but the women of the MKO didn’t allow this. Their performance was all-encompassing and could not be faulted.

Heiner Goebbels is much more than a composer. His combination of music and theatre creates a thoroughly integrated performance art that begs to be seen and not just heard. A composer could ask for no better advocate than the Münchener Kammerorchester, whose total ease with complex musical languages and ideas allow the emotion to come first, making this music wholly relevant and engaging. An unforgettable musical experience.

*****