Queen Elizabeth Hall
Stockhausen – Gesang der Jünglinge
Stockhausen – Kontakte
Boulez – Le Marteau sans maître
Colin Currie (percussion)
Nicholas Hodges (piano)
Hilary Summers (contralto)
Members of the Aurora Orchestra
Franck Ollu (conductor)
Not for the first time, a concert of post-war avant-garde music showed what a thirst there is to hear music from this scandalously neglected area of the repertoire performed. The Queen Elizabeth Hall was sold out, a friend of mine having bought just in time one of the last remaining tickets. Whatever the reasons for not performing this music might be, lack of interest and demand is certainly not one. Whilst some of the selections for the Southbank Centre’s Rest is Noise season have to my mind been baffling – take, for instance, the wildly exaggerated importance soon to be ascribed to the tedious outpourings of minimalism, ‘holy’ and otherwise – the only regret here is that we could not hear more from a period whose music remains at least as bracing, as vital, as it did when first written and first performed. Indeed, as some though by no means all orchestras and halls fall back upon crowd-pleasing aural junk food as their token ‘modern music’, it becomes all the more necessary to hear, as it were, the real thing: Neue Musik, be it Stockhausen, Lachenmann, Schoenberg, or Bach.
Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge proves a quickening experience every time one hears it. We have lost the shock value of a piece of ‘merely’ electronic music; that will probably never return. But we have gained the ability to hear such a piece as a repertoire work, a classic, with both the advantages and dangers that entails. This time around, I was taken anew by the sense, early on though not only early on, of seeming aurally and of course spatially the very company of heaven. Stockhausen’s music might not sound ‘like’, say, the Sanctus from Bach’s B minor Mass, but the effect, the experience might not be entirely different. The flames of the text’s fiery furnace (Daniel 3) flickered as bright as ever, perhaps still more so; I could certainly feel the heat. Later, it was as if we were approaching the sanctuary, or a sanctuary, itself, whatever that might be. Musical? Divine? Were there already premonitions of the cosmogony of Licht? The composer’s heterodox Catholic mysticism seemed almost as strong as that of Messiaen; so, of course, did his technical radicalism.
It was salutary to be reminded by Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s informative programme notes that Shostakovich denounced Stockhausen as a representative of ‘decadent capitalist culture’ at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. The multifarious disciples of the latter-day St Dmitri would do well to remember that aggressive æsthetic attacks were far from the sole province of the avant-garde. Stockhausen, who began work on Kontakte in the same year as Shostakovich’s attack, was better advised to respond with a work whose compositional riches dwarf anything the Soviet composer could have dreamed of, though a little more than twenty years later, Helmut Lachenmann’s ‘Open Letter to Hans Werner Henze’ would deal with more or less the same issue:
Can there be a more presumptuous and, at the same time, ignorant programme than the propagation of a “human art” (in contrast to the up-to-now inhuman ...) and then the claim to be composing ‘finally, again, for the public’? For whom then were Nono’s Il canto sospeso, La terra e la campagna, Stockhausen’s Gruppen and Kontakte, Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître, Berio’s Epifania and Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra composed? Reproaching a hermetically sealed music for insiders only repeats the favourite excuse of a public which runs for cover when faced with works like those just names. It runs because it is more affected by the emotive power experienced in these works than it is entertained by the emotions of the collected neo-symphonists.
At any rate, dspite a barbaric intervention of premature applause – Soviet methods for dealing with such behaviour might usefully be employed here – Nicholas Hodges, Colin Currie, and Sound Intermedia unleashed a dazzling display of virtuosity that was yet entirely at the service of Stockhausen’s endlessly restive imagination. Even a mobile telephone call for once seemed almost to blend with the array of percussive and electronic sonorities. As with any work worth its salt, one experiences different facets and listens in different ways on different occasions. I was struck here by the contest between what one might characterise as dialectical opposing forces: stillness and hyper-activity, peace and violence, attack and aural reconciliation, intimacy (think for instance, of the almost vocal duet between piano and xylophone) and swarming, swirling, all-enveloping extroversion as electronics and ‘conventional’ instruments enhance the capabilities of each other and indeed of the audience itself. Above all, there was a true sense of the opening up of possibilities, the greatest legacy of a ‘Darmstadt’ that could not have been further removed from that of doctrinaire caricature. (It was almost quaintly ‘retro’ to see a couple of people walk out.) Above all, we were reacquainted with a composer whose sheer inventiveness places him with Haydn.
For the second half, Hilary Summers joined players of the Aurora Orchestra under Frank Ollu for what perhaps continues to be the emblematic musical work of the 1950s, Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maître. For Boulez, the high watermark of total serialism has already passed; as our distance from its origins increases from its origins, we increasingly seem to perform and to hear the work as much as a labyrinthine extension of Schoenberg and Berg, towards whose nostalgia the young(ish) Boulez felt more than a little suspicion, as to Webern’s crystalline purity. The difference of the sound world from anything we had heard from Stockhausen was immediately apparent. So indeed was every aspect of the compositional ‘voice’: again, an indication that there could have been nothing doctrinaire about the composers’ explorations. Exactitude and ‘expression’ were revealed as sides of the same coin, that old Schoenbergian – or indeed Bachian – coin of freedom and determinism. The players, amongst whom we should count the unmistakeable contralto of Summers, revelled in a seemingly limitless array of instrumental combinations. Though there were occasional, quite understandable, instances of hesitancy, for instance in ‘Commentaire II de “Bourreaux de solitude”,’ this was in most respects a commanding performance, those hangmen of solitude uncovering memories, fleeting, perhaps even imaginary, of Ravel’s ‘Le Gibet’ from Gaspard de la nuit, the second ‘commentary’ perhaps the most mesmerising of all. In keeping with the general theme of exploration, new worlds seemed to open up in the double of ‘Bel difice et les pressentiments’. Strands may have been brought together, but immediately they suggested, in true serialist fashion, new avenues to follow. As we know, this work was in many ways just the beginning – both for Boulez and his confrères.