Monday, 10 November 2008

Stockhausen, RNCM Wind Orchestra/Rundell, et al., 9 November 2008

Royal Festival Hall

Stockhausen – Gesang der Jünglinge
Stockhausen – Lucifers Tanz (SAMSTAG from LICHT, London premiere)
Stockhausen – Michaels-Abschied (DONNERSTAG from LICHT)

Marco Blaauw (trumpet)
Karin de Fleyt (piccolo)
Nicholas Isherwood (bass)
Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra
Clark Rundell (conductor)

With this concert, the Southbank Centre’s KLANG festival, curated by Oliver Knussen, drew to a close. Gesang der Jünglinge is generally acknowledged to represent a milestone in electronic music. In the wake of the year-long Messiaen celebrations, I was put in mind of the correspondence between Stockhausen’s electronic chorus, founded upon a single treble voice, and Messiaen’s birdsong. That liturgical sense ever-present in Stockhausen’s œuvre shone through, as did the alleluias of the refrain ‘Preiset den Herrn’. Another correspondence I made was with the Leipzig Bach recordings of the early 1950s from Gunther Ramin and the Thomanerchor, for Stockhausen’s heterodox Catholicism was always inviting enough to encompass other traditions. The recording naturally sounds a little dated nowadays, as had that of Varèse’s Poème électronique at the Proms. Far more important, however, was the sense of the Royal Festival Hall being transformed into a cathedral of sound.

The musicians of the Royal Northern College of Music brought us the London premiere of Lucifers Tanz (‘Lucifer’s Dance’). It is of course a pity that we were unable to experience a staged performance, but this was certainly not a gift-horse to be looked in the mouth. Having ‘resurrected’ himself following apparent death, Lucifer’s project here is once again to enslave mankind, on this occasion through facial gestures, the material of the dance. If staged, the orchestra would be presented in the shape of a human face; here, there was of necessity some compromise, but the musicians were still compelled to move in their seats, as well as to play, in order to convey some impression of the facial gestures commanded by Lucifer. We also missed the stilt dancer who would have represented Lucifer onstage; instead, though, we had the compelling visible presence of the bass, Nicholas Isherwood, himself. Magician-like in aspect and in sonorous deep voice, he acted as guide to and initiator of the sequence of Left-Eyebrow Dance, Right-Eyebrow Dance, Left-Eye Dance, Right-Eye Dance, Left-Cheek Dance, Right-Cheek Dance, Wings-of-the-Nose Dance, Upper-Lip Dance, Tear Dance, Tip-of-the-Tongue Dance, Ribbon Dance, and Chin-Dance. The straightforward word-setting – one could hardly be more distant from Nono or indeed from many of Stockhausen’s contemporaries – is fitted to the liturgical intonation.

As Jerome Kohl explained in his excellent programme notes, the music ‘is scored in the Dionysian “section style” of the big-band jazz’ Stockhausen remembered from his youth. I recalled the echoes of such style in Henze’s Boulevard Solitude, although here the influence was more structural than stylistic. The pulsating opening, which to some extent provided the underpinning for the rest of the scene, gave a fine sense of the ritualistic, continued in and heightened by the physical nature of the performances. Although some, though by no means all, of the music is frankly tonal, it sounds primæval – this is, after all, a creation myth – and in no sense suggests compositional exhaustion. Whatever else Stockhausen may have been, he was no neo-classicist, nor neo-anything-else.

Ably conducted by Clark Rundell, the musicians of the RNCM wind-band proved superb advocates for Stockhausen’s score, fully at home with his requirements. The three instrumental soloists, Marco Blauuw (familiar from this year’s Stockhausen Prom), Karin de Fleyt, and an unnamed percussionist (a pity, since he deserved recognition) from the RNCM, were equally excellent. Blauuw’s alternation between unmated and muted trumpet, to which certain extended techniques were added, was as flawless as one would expect, yet nevertheless deserving of comment. This is a worthy successor to Markus Stockhausen in the role of Michael. His unsuccessful – dramatically, that is – yet impressive soliloquy marked an especial highpoint, as did the splendidly despatched percussive Wing-of-the-Nose Dance, echoing yet transcending any popular origins. De Fleyt conveyed in her line – which would have accompanied a solo Totentanz (dance of death) on stage – memories of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, her piccolo as sinuous and sensuous as I can recall hearing the instrument.

Following the concert, we were treated outside to a rendition of Michaels Abschied (Michael’s Farewell), from RNCM trumpeters. Standing on the Festival Terrace, surrounded by the sights and sounds of contemporary London, I was given to an uncharacteristically Cageian thought. The experience of hearing here Stockhausen’s music for the audience departing the theatre had the almost paradoxical consequence of making me truly listen to the sounds of the city and how they too might constitute musical sounds and progressions. The trumpet calls, once again excellently despatched, also recalled to me the brass leitmotif calls from Bayreuth, ushering the audience back into the Festspielhaus as intervals come to a close. What we really need, of course, is for LICHT to be fully staged. And where could be more appropriate than Bayreuth, out of season? If the new regime wishes to be serious about expanding its remit whilst remaining loyal to the spirit of Wagner’s principles, this would be a perfect statement of intent – and far more than that. Like Stockhausen, we can dream...