Monday 19 January 2009

Total Immersion: Stockhausen Day, 17 January 2009

Barbican Centre and Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s

Tuning In (Omnibus film by Barrie Gavin, introduced by Barrie Gavin)
Stockhausen – Adieu, for wind quintet
Stockhausen – Klavierstücke, nos. I-IV, VII, and IX
Stockhausen – Kontra-Punkte
Stockhausen – Choral
Stockhausen – Chöre für Doris
Stockhausen – Litanei 97

Nicolas Hodges (piano)
Emma Tring (soprano)
Guildhall New Music Ensemble
BBC Singers
Richard Baker (conductor)
David Hill (conductor)
Stockhausen – Inori

Kathinka Pasveer (dancer-mime)
Alain Louafi (dancer-mime)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson (conductor)
Stockhausen – Hymnen

The first of three BBC Symphony Orchestra ‘Total Immersion’ days was devoted to Karlheinz Stockhausen. Last year’s Stockhausen Day at the Proms and the KLANG Festival at the Southbank would have provided an ideal context for many although, given the size of the ferociously hard-working composer’s œuvre, there remains much more music to be discovered. Barrie Gavin’s 1978 Omnibus film on the composer provided a stimulating appetiser, the director proving a diverting speaker in his introduction to this introduction. Centred around excerpts from a Songcircle performance of Stimmung and from Stockhausen’s fascinating lecture at the Oxford Union, it was sad to reflect – as Gavin did – that it would be inconceivable for such a film to be made today, let alone shown on BBC One. It might, he joked, just about make it onto a putative BBC Thirty-two at midnight. What most surprised me was how witty a speaker the composer proved to be. In my experience, his music, whatever its other virtues, is singularly lacking in humour; yet here, he was able to employ that very quality not for its own sake, not as a dubious means of acquiring popularity, but to grant insights into his music.

The first of the day’s three concerts was to my mind the most rewarding in ‘purely’ musical terms, the presence of some interesting but hardly representative juvenilia notwithstanding. LSO St Luke’s Jerwood Hall provided the setting, whilst the two evening concerts would take place in the Barbican Hall. Adieu (1966) was one of the few non-electronic works Stockhausen wrote during the 1960s, prompted by a request from the oboist Wilhelm Meyer for a memorial to his son, Wolfgang Christian. I had never heard the piece before but was instantly taken by how well Stockhausen wrote for wind quintet (flute/piccolo, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon). For a composer who was often most keen of all his contemporaries to forge ahead, apparently to sever links with tradition, there was a surprising degree of Mozartian reference or at least consonance, albeit with a typical fearlessness in creating something quite new. An opening cadence hinted at what was to come, sounding like a Mozartian objet trouvé, followed by mesmerising airborne material, which put me in mind of Ligeti’s Lontano. Such a pattern would continue throughout the piece, with a more ‘traditional’ gesture, always conducted, followed by freer, exploratory material, often of a similar nature to that mentioned, although one episode displayed considerable violence. Paul Griffiths’s helpful notes explained that the durations of events were given by the Fibonacci sequence (1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55,89,144) and that ordered increase, both in composition and in performance, was palpable: something more stratified, hierarchical even than, for instance, the fantasy of Boulezian proliferation. The ending, when it came, was charming, almost Classical. Richard Baker and members of the Guildhall New Music Ensemble proved excellent guides in this initial exploration.

Next were six of Stockhausen’s seminal Klavierstücke, expertly performed by Nicolas Hodges. I-IV were performed as a group, followed by V, then VII. It was a while since I had heard any of Stockhausen’s piano music in concert, the previous occasion having been a spellbinding recital by Maurizio Pollini, when, heard in the context of Brahms, Webern, and subsequently Beethoven, my ears had readily related Stockhausen’s music to German tradition. I suspected that this would be less the case in an all-Stockhausen concert but, for whatever reason, I was mistaken, probably a sign that this music is now truly taking its place in the repertoire but also surely a sign of the pianist’s genuine musical artistry. Written in 1952 and 1953, the first four pieces fit very well together; when performed in this way, as Griffiths noted, we can hear them almost as four brief sonata movements. I also thought of the single-movement/four movement duality of the Liszt B minor piano sonata or the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony no.1. The first piece displayed a gleaming, crystalline sound: neo-Bauhaus, if you like. Hodges’ performance drew attention to the crucial importance – as signalled by the composer himself – of the duration of pauses in relation to the serialised dynamic contrasts. Everything sounded – as indeed it is – both fantastical and absolutely logical. The same could be said for the other three pieces, the flowing, Andante-like second ‘movement’, the ‘scherzo’ of Webernesque concision, and the pointillistic ‘finale’, in which one could almost see the stars from which Stockhausen would soon draw such inspiration – and indeed descent. In the fifth piece (1954), some chords – which were most definitely heard as chords – could have come straight out of a set of Schoenberg Klavierstücke. Hodges imparted a true sense of continuity and seemed to refer back to the ‘cascade of gestures’ (Griffiths) that had characterised the first piece. Indeed, I heard the fifth almost as an expansion of the possibilities of the first, not least in the clearly audible demonstration of serialised dynamics as an integral part of composition, dynamic contrasts no longer being relegated to the realm of ‘expression’ of some higher-level material. The composer’s exploration of different registers of the piano, with different consequences for sustaining and ‘natural’ resonance was expertly projected here and in the seventh piece, although the latter certainly presented its own character, ‘personality’ even: more abrupt, more austere, yet spun with a similar musical line. There was violence too, all the more telling given that it followed such attention to detail in making every one of the repeated sounds different in its attack and dynamic projection. Intervals, pauses, and the relations between them were anything but hermetic abstractions. Stockhausen had a narrative to tell and Hodges told it. Something one often forgets – or perhaps never knew in the first place – about Stockhausen is that, whilst working in the Norwestdeutscher Rundfunk’s Studio for Electronic Music, he pursued doctoral studies in phonetics and communication theory, subsequently describing his supervisor, Werner Meyer-Eppler as the best teacher he ever had. Stockhausen may have been an intrepid explorer but always in the service of communication.

For Kontra-Punkte (1952, revised 1953), Baker and the Guildhall New Music Ensemble (here flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, piano, harp, violin, and ’cello) returned. Widely considered to be his ‘breakthrough piece’ – the composer himself made it ‘no.1’ in his cataloguing system – it has lost none of its lustre. It was most interesting to hear it with memories of Punkte, the piece ‘against’ which it is to some extent written, not yet faded from the Gürzenich Orchestra’s Proms performance last year (albeit in the last of the composer’s heavily revised versions). Baker and his players imparted not only a ‘technical’ musical sense of points giving way to groups – Stockhausen’s work is partly a commentary, intentional or otherwise, upon the progression of his own compositional technique – but also a poetic sense of how this might be understood as blossoming. I was impressed by the way in which each instrument retained, arguably acquired, its own character, again rather like a star in the night sky, whilst forming part of a greater constellation. There is another shift within the work, towards predominance of the piano part, somewhat helped by the similar tones of the harp, but largely the product of a Herculean effort on the part of the ensemble’s pianist. Here, Richard Uttley’s effort was not in vain, helping Baker to shape the dramatic trajectory of this wonderful work. No wonder that the notoriously demanding Boulez entertains no reservations about it.

The second half opened with the early Choral, from just two years earlier, 1950. It certainly does what it says on the tine, the line-by-line treatment standing in direct descent from Bach, albeit without any sense of compositional originality. David Hill shaped the BBC Singers’ mellifluous response to the text very well, including a telling pause between stanzas. I fancied that I heard something of another of Stockhausen’s teachers, Frank Martin, as I also did in the following Chöre für Doris, settings in translation of Verlaine, also from 1950. Three contrasting choruses, ‘Die Nachtigall’, ‘Armer junger Hirt’, and ‘Agnus Dei’, again displayed considerable aplomb in the handling of choral forces and again seemed singularly lacking in intimations of what was to come. I was, however, rather taken with the way in which different vocal parts displayed different vocal characters – in more senses than one – in the middle number, telling of a poor young shepherd and his love. The line, in which Verlaine, in Rilke’s translation, beseeches the Lamb of God to grant us peace, not war, was aptly imploring, both in composition and in performance.

Hodges then returned with the ninth of the Klavierstücke (1954-5, revised 1961). He was fully equal to the implacable opening with its long diminuendo of repeated and almost-repeated notes. Once heard, this cannot be forgotten, certainly not whilst the rest of the piece vainly attempts to break free of its oppressive shadow – not unlike the horrendous discord towards the end of the first movement of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony – and certainly not in this fine performance. Except, of course, it is not merely a memory, for it recurs, foreshortened and punctuated, until finally some provisional escape is attained. Once again, Hodges conveyed not only the musical but also the dramatic substance of Stockhausen’s vision.

Finally, we heard the extraordinary Litanei 97, Stockhausen’s 1997 reworking of ‘Litanei’, one of the ‘text compositions’ making up the 1968 Aus den sieben Tagen. Here the composer sets his original text, for speaking chorus and Japanese rin (bowl-shaped gongs from temple rituals, here struck by the conductor). This is ritual and difficult to judge in musical terms, but the spectacle, replete with blue and silver robes, was captivating. The singers formed a circle with the priestly conductor in the centre, the circle – later two concentric circles – sometimes rotating, eventually turning outwards and dispersing. Bells added both a haunting sound in themselves and a resonant punctuation. Members of the choir rather than the conductor intoned; I was not quite sure why this was the case, but it did no particular harm. There were two unfortunate interventions, one from a member of the audience in the balcony, who dropped a programme from on high, and the other from David Hill, who knocked over one of the bowls. It is, of course, easy to mock, but the question of the purpose of music in a modern, all-too-secular world is of crucial importance, and one Stockhausen, unlike so many others, was not afraid to address.

This nicely set the scene for the first of the evening performances, that of Inori (1973-4). Stockhausen’s decisive return to the ‘formula’-melodic method of composition, first broached in Mantra, was admirably described in David Robertson’s clear yet far from patronising spoken introduction. In these ‘adorations’, the basic elements of music – rhythm, dynamics, melody, harmony, and polyphony – are brought into being, one by one, each of the five sections devoted to one of the five sections of the composer’s generative formula. The mime-dancers, acting according to Stockhausen’s precise instructions, mirror – or do they lead? – the musical development and once again impart an undeniable sense of ritual to the unfolding proceedings. Certainly the basic, primæval opening aptly presented the ‘invocation’ of the work’s title. Oddly enough, the monotone G, pervading almost the entire work, is not ‘monotonous’ in the popular sense, although it proved impossible to shift it from my memory at the end of the performance. This is process music but not minimalism, as ultra-serialist as anything Stockhausen wrote during his Darmstadt years, both maddening and beguiling in its inexorable simplicity. Robertson and the BBC Symphony Orchestra could not, I suspect, have been bettered as advocates, understanding all of this perfectly. Their handling of the several crucial echoes was especially impressive, quite magical. It was unfortunate that, occasionally, the mime-dancers fell a little out of sync, a failing that drew attention away from the ritual. As the work became louder and the orchestra was given its head, there were sounds which, taken in isolation, would not have been totally out of place in Mahler, but context is all, or almost all. We were being led, visually as well as musically, towards an entrance into a mysterious temple. Applause was, I suppose, inevitable at the end, but I found the experience unsettling. Either this was a ritual of quite a different nature from conventional concert-going, in which case the reaction seemed inappropriate, or, given the supreme lack of irony, it was charlatanry, in which case...

But on to the final performance, returning to the mid-sixties for the internationalist tape-work, Hymnen (1966-7). There are actually two versions for musicians too, yet it was the ‘pure’ original we heard here. Hymnen is quite a testament to Stockhausen’s unique imagination, a montage of four ‘regions’ – I to IV, dedicated respectively to Boulez, Pousseur, Cage, and Berio – in which we hear various national anthems, shortwave radio signals, voices, crowds, aircraft, Stockhausen in discussion with his assistant, and so on, until finally reaching some sort of peace with the composer’s breathing. There is much that is of great interest – and, as ever with Stockhausen, it never seems that the concept is more important than the result. The distortions, intersections, and juxtapositions are genuinely compelling. Yet I could not help but wonder whether it needed to last two hours (one might answer, ‘but why should it not?); or, if it did, whether the Barbican Hall without lights was really the place for such a ‘performance’. No use was really made of the space, in sharp contrast, say, with the imaginative deployment of the Royal Albert Hall for last year’s British premiere of COSMIC PULSES. Yet in suggesting to us that a conventional concert hall may not really be an appropriate setting for his music, in disturbing our ideas about what a ‘concert’ might be, Stockhausen is doubtless performing a great service. That he is not merely doing that but is creating something utterly new elevates him from the merely Cageian.