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.