Stockhausen chamber music at the Queen Elizabeth Hall review ****

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Tamara Stefanovich (piano), Dirk Rothbrust (percussion), Marco Stroppa (sound design)

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 2nd June 2019

Karlheinz Stockhausen

  • Zyklus for percussion
  • Mantra for 2 pianos with 12 antique cymbals, woodblock & 2 ring modulators (and shortwave radio/tape) 

I confess. I was defeated by the performance of Donnerstag aus Licht by Le Balcon and the London Sinfonietta in the Royal Festival Hall a couple of weeks before this. This is the “accessible” Thursday instalment of Stockhausen cycle of operas taken from the days of the week and mixes his own personal history with that of the Germany of his youth before, and this is where I ducked out, going off into a load of cosmic mumbo jumbo as was the maestro’s want. That is not to say that I wasn’t fascinated by the first act and a half, musically and in terms of the performance, just that I couldn’t engage with whatever message is being conveyed. And I was a bit tired.

So maybe I had to conclude that I was just not up to the task of understanding the work of the man who revolutionised contemporary classical music. I would expect that the vast majority of you, (vast in this context being an abstract concept), if you can even be bothered to YouTube a bit of Stockhausen’s music, will think it a mighty load of old shite. I sympathise. But if you find yourself being stealthily drawn into the world of modern and contemporary classical music, for sure there are no tunes but structures, forms, sounds, ideas, emotions, inventions, in fact everything music is, is all still present and correct, and you are of a slightly nerdy bent, fascinated by the “maths” of music, then old Karlheinz needs to be tackled. Even if he was a grade A space cadet, believing he emanated from the star Sirius.

So imagine my surprise when, here in this recital, and in other smaller scale and earlier works I have subsequently explored, I discovered that there is far less to be intimidated about that I had imagines. In fact some of KS’s music positively rocks.

Case in point. Zyklus for percussion. Zyklus means cycle I gather in German. So the instruments are arranged in a circle. The “score” in a ring binder. The soloist can start where he/she likes and go round until he/she gets back to where he/she started. The notation is readable either way up as well. The keyed instruments, (marimba, vibraphone), are represented with traditional notation, but only for glissandos, but for the unpitched instruments, (drums, tom-toms, cymbals and other assorted metal and wooden paraphernalia,) KS dreamt up a new, graphic, depiction of the rhythms. All instruments are within easy reach of the player.

Given the freedom afforded the percussionist, and the vast array of instruments, this is as much theatre as music. Dirk Rothbrust, who works out of Cologne, is plainly a dab hand at this sort of caper and a born showman, channeling his inner Bonzo Bonham. However, clocking in at 15 minutes, Zyklus avoids the worst excesses of the 1970s heavy rock gods. And it is way more interesting in terms of textures and qualities.

The main event, the Mantra for 2 pianos and other stuff, was a far meatier affair. Over an hour in fact. I was expecting much from Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich, who are the unparalleled champions of this sort of music. And they delivered. This is a heck of a piece of music. Can’t say I was transfixed throughout but there is still much to take in, admire and, yes, even enjoy.

The piece, premiered in 1970, marked a return to fully notated music after the years of experimentation with more esoteric “indeterminate” instructions for performers. It wears its Asian musical influences on its sleeves and, surprise, surprise, it actually has a tune you can hum. Namely the counterpointed melody, (“formula” in Stockhausen speak), of the “Mantra” which is subsequently subject to seemingly endless expansion and contraction. Not the kind of easy to follow repetition offered up by minimalism, nor the classic theme and variations, (as no notes are varied), but, mostly, very structured transpositions and transformations of the four segment, thirteen note, mantra, initially just four very condensed chords.

With electronic manipulation via ring modulators, (nope, me neither, but fortunately your man Marco Stroppa in the middle of the hall was handy with electronics), and some antique cymbals (crotales) and wood blocks thrown in for texture and to allow the two pianists to signal the change of sections to each other. Quick, slow, loud, quiet, inversions, oscillations, vibratos, some burbling morse code from a short wave radio, (it was the 1960s kids, no mobiles or Spotify), fights between the two pianos, even some vocal squawking from M Aimard and Ms Stefanovich at one point. It all ends with a kind of 10 minute speeded up reprise of the previous hour before the mantra growls into the end.

Read Wiki if you want to learn more about the ingenuity of the structure. Let’s be honest though it will only make sense to the ear of the expert. But, I repeat, what is amazing is that even a dummy like the Tourist, whose only qualification for enjoying this sort of stuff is open enthusiasm, can discern the patterns and can be intrigued, and at times amazed, by the results. Like Zyklus the “performance” adds to the impact of the music.

OK so it won’t be the opening number at the next demeaning shindig Chez Tourist, nor am I likely to invest in a recording, but this was undeniably worth the investment of a few quid and an hour. And the QEH has the ideal acoustic to present such a piece now all the junk has been cleaned out. Certainly better than the RFH next door.

Go on give this sort of stuff a whirl. I dare you. You never know. 

Harper Regan at the Tabard Theatre review ****

Harper Regan

Tabard Theatre, 1st June 2019

The Tourist’s first visit to the Tabard Theatre in leafy Chiswick, which given its proximity, its longevity, it has been around since 1985, and the quirky breadth of its repertoire, new plays and revivals, own and other productions, must count as a massive oversight. Still better late than never.

Now one way or another I have seen a fair few of playwright Simon Stephens’ original plays and adaptations. Mind you there are a fair few of them, him being a prolific, and very effective, story teller. He probably veers a little towards being a playwright’s (and creatives’s) playwright than a “populist”, he is popular with those arty Continental types, but I would contend he is not as knotty as some of his contemporaries, like that Crimp chap. And he definitely has a way with words.

Harper Regan premiered at the National Theatre in 2008, (directed by the splendid Marianne Elliot and with the equally splendid Lesley Sharp in the title role), and tells the story, across 11 chronological scenes, of an eponymous early forties everywoman as she embarks on a journey from her home in Uxbridge to Stockport, and then Manchester, before returning to he family a couple of days later. Her husband has been convicted, maybe wrongly, of abuse and can no longer teach. Her daughter may not be able to afford university. Her father is dying, hence the trip, and her relationship with her mother is “strained” to say the least. Along the way we encounter her prat of a boss in the office she works in, who is bizarrely reluctant to let her take time off, she meets a student peer of her daughter, has a flirt, which doesn’t end too well, with an alpha nut-job journalist bloke she meets in a pub, then another, arranged, sexual encounter in a hotel room with a somewhat older, kinder fellow, and has it out with Mum. No uplifting ending here folks.

As usual with Mr Stephens the play doesn’t offer up its secrets quickly or indeed clearly. That is not to say that its dialogue, centred on Harper, and flecked with humour and darkness, (though this is not a “black comedy”), is opaque. Just that its musings, on the power relationships between the men and women, on family, on death and everyday moralities, emerge cumulatively from Harper’s journey. Mr Stephens is not afraid of exploring some pretty unpleasant facets of the human condition through his characters, and this play is no exception, and there is always an awkward, unsettling quality to the apparently naturalistic interactions of the characters. The small stage piles up with secrets, guilt, frustration, evasion and aggression. A metaphor for what lurks beneath in buttoned-up Blighty, a lesson on women’s subordination or a provocation by a veteran of the form? All of the above. Simon Stephens plays with a number of themes without quite pining then down.

It takes a bit of actorly doing to capture Harper’s mix of defensiveness and assertion in her “roles” as wife, mother, daughter, employee and sexual being but Emily Happisburgh was up to the task. She is, with TV veteran Jenny Kirsch, one half of Contentment Productions whose laudable aim is to give “a greater platform to complex female voices”. This was a pretty good place to start. I can’t vouch for how director Pollyanna Newcombe has approached the detail of the text but it felt to me like she had captured the tone, pace and mood of the play.

The Tabard is, as studio theatres above pubs generally are, a cosy space so set and props had to be man and woman handled between the scenes which, with choreographed movement and blasts of sound, actually enhanced the episodic, fractured nature of the story. Ms Happisburgh was admirably supported by Philip Gill, Joseph Langdon, Cameron Robertson, Marcus McManus, Alma Reising and, especially, Bea Watson in her stage debut.

I can see why this sort of thing might leave some frustrated but even on a overly-sultry Saturday afternoon I was drawn in by both play and production. Oh and a big thank you to the Tabard. I was poorly for my initial booked performance but the very kind people at TT were more than happy to change to another performance and wish me well.