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. 

Stockhausen’s Stimmung at the Barbican ****

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Singcircle

Barbican Hall, 20th November 2017

  • Jacqueline Barron – soprano
  • Zoe Freedman – soprano
  • Heather Cairncross – mezzo-soprano
  • Guy Elliott – tenor
  • Angus Smith – tenor
  • Gregory Rose – bass/director
  • Robert Henke – laser artist
  • Kathinka Pasveer – sound projection
  • Stephen Montague – assistant sound projection
  • Reinhard Klose – sound engineer

Karlheinz Stockhausen

  • Stimmung
  • Cosmic Pulses

Right you had to be there OK. Stockhausen is the great big looming presence that hangs over the whole of modern classical music. A whole new way of thinking about music. A whole new sound world. Music as mathematics. Rigorously intellectual. A control freak whose vision extended well beyond this earth into our wider universe. A mystic. A teacher. An inspiration. Certainly bonkers.

That’s the myth anyway. I have never been brave enough to take the plunge on a recording or concert previously, figuring it was going to be well beyond me, and probably painful. Yet there comes a time in every man’s life, (well probably not yours I suspect), when he has to step up to the plate and take on the musical challenge. I would be willing to bet though that I was not the only one in the packed Barbican Hall who was new to this and approaching it with some trepidation. Seriously they can’t all have been Stockhausen devotees.

I was totally unprepared then for what followed. For this is actually a pleasant piece of music which, for me, turned out to be comparable with listening to the best of Renaissance vocal music. It takes a bit of getting used to the “pure harmonics” sound and the way that the six voices are used, and the text, with all its sexist, priapic boasting, and barking out of various gods’ names, is nonsense. But the sounds and patterns of the voices are fascinating and, at times, just beautiful. Like a motet, honestly.

Mr Stockhausen takes the high pitches that shadow every natural note, or fundamental as he termed it, and asks his singers, by shifting the position of tongue and lips, to draw out these high pitches and expose the “harmonics”. Starting with a low B flat he then takes five ascending notes and creates a new vocabulary of harmonics. From this he conjured up Stimmung. There are 51 different parts or “models”, with each male voice leading 9 of the parts and each female 8. The “lead” for each part waits for the rest of the ensemble to merge their previous material into their “lead”, to achieve “identity” in terms of tempo, rhythm and dynamic, and then, with a flick of the hand, passes on the “lead” to whoever comes next. This means the performance can vary depending on how long the “identities” take to emerge and in what order the “models” are taken. In 29 sections the “magic” god words ring out and there are some other recognisable words popping up elsewhere (“barber shop” being the funniest). All clear. Well the surprising thing is that the structure is clear, crystal clear.

I know it sounds daft. But it isn’t. It is captivating. Not much to look at mind you. Six people sat round an IKEA bubble lamp with microphones, (mind you it does look a bit retro 70s cool), gurning and sometimes waving. But it sounds divine. Literally.

Singcircle were founded in 1976 by Gregory Rose, who is still there. They have performed Stimmung over 50 times. It is clearly a tricky thing to pull off. This was the last ever performance so certainly poignant. Kathinka Pasveer, the sound projectionist, was one of Stockhausen’s leading acolytes and interpreters so no-one better to mix the whole. I think I heard a couple of electronic grunts along the way but who cares. You closed your eyes and just let the transcendent sounds swirl over, around and through you. Jeez I am travelling back in time to my long-hair days in the mid 70s.

Stimmung though was enough for me. I passed on the second piece, Cosmic Pulses, which came after the interval. No point pushing my luck I reckoned. I had checked it out ahead of the gig and could see that this was likely to be a step too far. One of Stockhausen’s last purely electronic works, from 2007, it is a knotty mathematical puzzle built on 24 structured loops, in a pitch range of seven octaves, played through 8 speakers. It looks intimidating on paper, there is an extract of the “score” in the programme to prove the point. In reality it is terrifying. Even with a fancy laser show I could tell this wasn’t going to do it for me.

So just Stimmung then. One revelation was more than enough on the night. This gets performed by other vocal groups, who presumably know what they are doing. When it does do not hesitate if you have any interest at all in music, of whatever form. I am off to search out a decent recording.