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. 

Ligeti in Wonderland at the South Bank review *****

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Ligeti in Wonderland

Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room, 11th, 12th and 13th May 2018

Pierre–Laurent Aimard (piano), Tamara Stefanovich (piano), Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), Marie-Luise Neunecker (horn), Daniel Ciampollini (percussion)

  • Ligeti – Poeme symphonique for 100 metronomes,
  • Ligeti – 3 pieces for 2 pianos (Monument, Selbstportrat, Bewegubg),
  • Ligeti – Trio for horn, violin and piano
  • Steve Reich – Clapping Music
  • Ligeti – Etude No 8 for piano and percussion
  • Conlon Nancarrrow – Piano Player studies Nos 4 & 9 arr. for 2 pianos
  • PL Aimard – Improvisation for 4 hands on Poeme symphonique for 100 metronomes
  • PL Aimard – Improvisation for piano and percussion on Ligeti’s Etude no 4 (Fanfares)

Shizuku Tatsuno (cello), Katherine Yoon, Yume Fujise (violins), Tipwatooo Aramwittaya, Ilaria Macedonia (harpsichords), lantian Gu, Laura Faree Rozada. Joe Howson (Pianos)

  • Sonata for solo cello
  • Ballad and Dance for two violins
  • Continuum for solo harpsichord
  • Passacaglia Ungherese for solo harpsichord
  • Musica Ricercata for solo piano

Pierre–Laurent Aimard (piano)

  • Etudes Books 1,2 and 3

Pierre–Laurent Aimard (piano), Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), Marie-Luise Neunecker (horn), Nicholas Collon (conductor), Aurora Orchestra, Jane Mitchell (creative director), Ola Szmida (animations)

  • Chamber Concerto
  • Piano Concerto
  • Hamburgisches Konzert
  • Violin Concerto

Hello. The review starts down here. As you can see the Tourist, along with many others, similarly intrigued and maybe enraptured by the music of Gyorgy Ligeti, put in a shift enjoying this weekend of music dedicated to his music.

Not one second was wasted. Some of the pieces stood out, the Trio, the piano works especially the Etudes and the Violin Concerto, but overall this was a fantastic array of performances of this brilliant composer. Wonderland for sure.

Now it takes a few decades before the new in all art forms is appreciated. Classical music, even in its most saccharine form, is not going to be for everyone. Yet it seems pretty clear to me that Ligeti, ahead of the other big name Modernists who transformed Western art music in the middle of the last century, is the one most people would choose to listen to. There is innovation and extension in his sound world for sure, there is intellect aplenty and there is memorable structure, though not the mathematical -isms of his peers, but most of all there is a depth of expression that anyone, even this muppet, can grasp. Add to this rhythm, of sorts, power, humour by the bucketload, and it’s easy to see why he gets performed a fair bit more than his contemporaries. He wasn’t sniffy about minimalism and he embraced music from other cultures. If you want to dip your toe in the modern classical world then this is definitely where to start.

There is a grand, ambitious, searching quality to his music, audible even in these smaller scale chamber and solo works. More often than not the works teeter on the brink of chaos but always, one way or another, resolve so I think it is optimistic on the whole. And, importantly, as with Luciano Berio, (another favourite for me alongside Xenakis and Penderecki), the history of art music is not smothered or ignored.

Where, variously Romania, Hungary, Germany and Austria, when, the War, (only his mother survived the concentration camps from his Jewish family), the Cold War, the 50s, 60s and 70s, what, as he moved through electronic and the Cologne School, to “micropolyphony” and then “polyrhythm”, all tumble out of his music like an avant garde encyclopedia. Know all those sounds that inhabit movie and TV soundtracks, when the creatives what to think big, go cosmic or generally scare the pants off you. Ligeti kicked it off, when Kubrick nicked his grooves for 2001. Music as texture. He even looks the part.

One more thing before I end this wall of pretentious guff. He always knew when to stop. Twenty minutes tops, even for the concertos. Most works clock in under ten minutes. Even opera Le Grande Macabre is under two hours. Genius.

The first concert kicked off with the Poeme symphonique for 100 metronomes. Yep there are 100 metronomes on stage set up with different beats. The performers skip on and set them off. Randomly. Of course it’s a joke, intended to explore the notion of chance in music (a la John Cage) but it becomes hypnotic, even a bit tuneful as patterns emerge from the chaos, and the gambler in me was desperate to have a punt on the last metronome clicking as it were. The survivor. An important concept for Ligeti given his personal history.

Pierre- Laurent Aimard was joined by regular collaborator Tamara Stefanovich for the two player piano pieces which preceded the Etudes. The first, Monument, sets up a cyclical rhythmic pattern which is then toppled with both players ending up at the very top of the keyboard. The second is an homage to minimalists Reich and Riley, fast scales and arpeggios with a backdrop of “silent” keys. This ends up in the bass. The third, Motion, is a canon, if you concentrate, which echoes the first piece.

The Trio is apparently an homage to Brahms. Search me. I suppose it does have a more Romantic structure than the polyrhythmic later Ligeti pieces. There is a sonata form opening, followed by a rapid ostinato with folky tunes wrapped around it, then a crooked march and a finale nicked from chords in Beethoven’s Les Adieux sonata. The main interest lies in the way the natural horn, with no keys and therefore lots of “out-of-tune” strange notes contrasts with the mannered piano, leaving the violin to hop between the two given its ability to produce natural harmonics. Since Ligeti dedicated his horn concerto (heard in the last concert) to Marie-Luise Neunecker, PL Aimard is the towering interpreter of Ligeti’s piano music and Pat Kop is my absolute favourite violinist in C20 music, there is no way this could have been bettered.

Then the fun started as PL Aimard and Daniel Ciampollini gave us a short rendition of Reich’s Clapping Music, (if you don’t know it the clue is in the title), which segued into Liget’s eighth Etude with Mr Ciampollini playing around it on his percussion kit, Nancarrow wrote his 49 Etudes for player piano because they were unplayable. Not so it seems, for these two particular studies, when four hands get involved. Then our percussionist interrupted on PL Aimard’s piano, and then both page turners, so all five were dinking out a version of the metronome piece that kicked things off. It was very droll though I admit you had to be there. Finally a dressed down version of Ligeti’s fourth etude.

Who knew classical music could be this much fun? OK maybe fun is stretching it but this whole performance emphasised the sharp humour which underpins Liget’s work as well as being a showcase for his rhythmic genius.

The next (free) concert was in the Purcell Room and involved students from the Royal College of Music. It mixed up some of the later solo Ligeti works with some from his early days in Romania and Hungary. As is always the case with RCM students the performance was at a very high level, better than many “professional” equivalents. Indeed this bunch already, largely, are on the circuit already. They all have jaw-droppingly impressive CV’s. I would single anyone out – they were all marvellous.

I heard the solo Cello sonata recently (Peter Wispelwey (cellist) at Kings Place review ****). It has been a nailed on cello classic since its premiere in 1979, though it was written in 1954. It was initially banned in Hungary by the “Composers Union”, a Stalinist censor. Two movements, a Dialogo, a conversation between a man and a woman, two ostinatos alternating between the upper and lower registers, and a Capriccio which has all sorts of thrilling extended techniques. (As an aside it would have been great to have recruited a cellist to the weekend cause to have a crack at the Cello Concerto with its bonkers high sustain at the end of the first movement).

The Ballad and Dance (1948) echoes Bartok with its loose transcriptions of Romanian folk songs. It is as easy to listen to as it sounds. Ligeti went on to explore Romanian folk songs in his Concert Romanesc (which sounds about as un-Modern and late C19 as it is possible to get).

Continuum was written for a two-manual harpsichord which can’t get up to much dynamically. The idea is that the notes are played so fast that the rhythm melts into a continuous blur. Almost to stasis. It looks and sounds like hard work to play but Tipwatooo Aramwittaya, (who appears to have medicine to fall back on if music and performance doesn’t pan out, which it will), was as cool as a cucumber. Like much of Ligeti the sounds are viscerally arresting but this is not mere novelty. Apparently it has been adapted for barrel organ to make it even simpler and even faster. The Passacaglia Ungherese, in contrast, is a repeated four bar descending ostinato intended to mimic the ground bass of the Baroque and was intended as a p*ss-take for his students, and those of us today, who love to keep moving to those Baroque grooves. It has some dancey counterpoints, obviously, and is marvellous. I need a recording.

The Musica Ricerta, like the Cello sonata, is a kind of experimental training work that Ligeti wrote in Hungary in the early 1950s away from the gaze of the censors. In each of the eleven pieces he places various restrictions on pitch, intervals and rhythms. they get sequentially more complicated as the number of pitch classes increases from the basic A in the first piece. Music for the brain for sure, but, as ever, Ligeti doesn’t skimp on the aesthetic. He loved sound you see.

This brings me neatly to the concert devoted to Ligeti’s 18 Etudes set across three books, started in 1985 and completed in 2001, his final work. All the influences on his “final late” period are there, central European folk music, Debussy, fractals, African cross-rhythms and Conlon Nancarrow. They are fiendishly difficult to play as Ligeti explores the entire range and possibility of the piano and piles layer upon layer of music. A fair few have a hectic, even aggressive quality, as they pile up into a rapid resolve but there are also poetic moments. There is a reason why M. Aimard is the pre-eminent performer of these pieces and the full house here was privileged to witness it. One of the best concerts I have ever attended.

The final concert expanded the player forces with the Aurora Orchestra under Nicholas Collon taking to the stage. The Chamber Concerto is a nailed on classic of the modern era, small-scale orchestra, 20 minutes in length, (no-one dares go further in new music, if only because it won’t get performed), and boundary-pushing. The opening movement has the instruments sliding around until they bash up against each other, then the winds sing out, before it all subsides. The second movements is a kind of mashed up Romantic fantasia which goes a bit awry, to be followed by a mechanical march, a clock factory under attack. The Presto finale is in a similar vein though ends perkily. If you ask me it is like a mini Rite of Spring, though as if some talented musicologist had discovered a partially burnt, muddled up copy of the score many years later. I am still trying to work it out.

The Piano Concerto is an even more uncompromising chap. Movements 1, 3 and 5, all quickest require the pianist to set the rhythms against which the orchestra adds snatches of melody. The second and fourth movements are more of a partnership. In the second the silly instruments, whistles and ocarinas, enter the chorale and in the fourth Ligeti sets up his head-spinning fractal structures. It is pretty quirky overall, sometimes confrontational, but immensely rich. I think it was the one piece over the weekend which really pushed the audience.

The Hamburgisches Konzert, Horn Concerto, was written for Marie-Luise Neunecker and in honour of Hamburg where he lived for 30 years. It is written, in part, for natural horn and exploits the strange harmonies which can emerge from the pure overtones of that beast. Finding out what sounds can do is part of the modern classical world but Ligeti, even here, never forgot to ensure this was set in a profoundly musical context. There are seven short movements. The soloist shifts between natural and valved horns, the four horn players in the orchestra, (all fine players, Pip Eastop, James Pillai, Ursula Monberg and Hugh Sisley), accompany on natural horns, the orchestra, except in the fourth movement takes a back seat. Now there is no doubt that the horn sound is a beautiful, extraordinary and eerie thing, (listen to Britten’s Serenade for a more comfortable alternative), but, to be fair, it can’t get up to much. But what it can do is showcased in this concerto and Ms Neunecker is probably the best person on the planet to show us how.

Having said that it was the Violin Concerto that brought the house down. Pat Kop is a magnetic stage personality, as she skips about, every inch the gypsy fiddler, in bare feet. The work is meat and drink for her, she even chucked in her own, entirely sympathetic cadenza, roping in the lead violin of Alexandra Wood. But the Aurora Orchestra also rose to the occasion. There are all sorts of non-standard tunings at work here, in the brass, in the woodwinds, even in one violin and viola. And, of course, the soloist, if they know what they are about, can bounce around to exploit the strange harmonics as GL intended. There are five movements, all of which exploit the coincidences, but the clarity of the interplay makes these sound more chamber-like than its two concerto peers. And dear reader there are passages, like the Aria at the beginning of the second movement, that are not at all scary. I promise. It’s a masterpiece I reckon.

So there you have. Possibly the best composer of the latter half of the C20 shown off to stunning effect by musicians who clearly love his work. You could feel the buzz in the room/s. The Barbican, courtesy of the BBCSO, has a “Total Immersion” day devoted to Ligeti on 2nd March next year, which repeats some of these works but offers up some choral and larger scale orchestra works. Do go.

 

 

 

Australian Chamber Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

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Australian Chamber Orchestra, Richard Tognetti (director), Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

Royal Festival Hall, 3rd November 2017

  • Bach The Art of Fugue Contrapunctus 1 to 4
  • Mozart Piano Concerto 15
  • Shostakovich Two Pieces for String Octet
  • Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence

There is something truly thrilling about watching a group of string players, some standing, going hell for leather, as one, in a piece written exactly for them. Not to decry the full blown symphonic experience or the intimacy of the quartet but this is a special treat. Normally I see (and hear) this as part of a Baroque programme, normally Italian, or maybe a spot of Bach. Here we had a powerful modern ensemble.

Now we, for I was accompanied by the discerning ear and brain of Mrs TFP, that the wide expanse of the Festival Hall might swallow up the band but we needn’t have worried, as even from our perch astern, the sound was splendid. What was something of a shame is that the Hall was barely half full, a real shame since the ACO under Richard Tognetti, are world class. It was not as if the programme was challenging in any way. Even in the repertoire that we found less appealing, (I favoured the Shostakovich, Mrs TFP the Mozart), namely the Tchaikovsky, the finesse and control of the ACO was astounding. In those passages in the Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky which called for the strings to come together the unanimity of sound and movement (bows moving exactly in unison) was uncanny. Like one instrument.

Now I have heard the Art of Fugue performed by harpsichord, piano, string quartet and viol consort. All different, all fascinating as the simple theme is worked through with increasing complexity across the 13 completed, and 1 unfinished, fugues and, sometimes, the 4 canons. There is probably someone out there who has had a crack at Bach’s masterpiece on the stylophone. (I’d paid good money to see that). I gather that Richard Tognetti, who has led the ACO since 1990 (that presumably explains the discipline of playing on show), can sometimes get a little carried away with his arrangements. Not here. Now admittedly the first 4 of the contrapunctus are easy for even my ears to follow, as the meticulous theme is set out in the first, the dotted rhythm added in the second, turned upside down and filled out in the third and expanded and “sped up” in the fourth (here through the use of pizzicato). So I am not sure how much further they could go with this work, even with their technical mastery, but this was very interesting and flawlessly delivered.

I hate to admit it but the Mozart was beautiful. I don’t know the 15th Piano Concerto but I am well aware of Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s qualities, last heard by me in a majestic Emperor Concerto under Essa Pekka Salonen. You can hear how young Wolfgang, (well not so young by the time he wrote this), created the piano concerto form we know and, usually, love today. There is some lovely woodwind action, lots of sublime tunes and some fiendish piano playing, but all wrapped up in a charming bow. Once again the playing of orchestra and soloist was technically precise, but with no lack of emotion.

Now my prime reason for booking this concert, other than the reputation of the orchestra, was the Shostakovich piece since this, in my experience is rarely performed. Written in 1924, when DSCH was still a student, in memory of his friend Volodiya Kurchavov, there are obvious signs of the composer DSCH would be come. The Prelude is still rooted in the Romantic Russian composers of the late C19 but in the plunging response to the initial theme and with the high accompaniment to the second theme there is more modernity. The Scherzo second piece could easily have dropped out of a DSCH symphony from twenty years later. Sardonic, ghostly, then a comedy march, with all that thrilling dissonance.. A joy to hear and brilliantly executed by the eight musicians.

The Tchaikovsky was the (good) surprise of the evening for here Mr Tognetti’s arrangement of this sextet, for all his strings, really showed just how extraordinary their playing is. Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of passages in this near 40 minute piece, that annoy me intensely, it’s all just too show pony, but I did get sucked in I admit. Not sure it is the same Florence that I know and love but all that lushness and heart tugging yearning is hard to fight. And to be fair the ACO’s muscular approach dials down the sentimentality (though not the pony).

There isn’t much about Aussies that makes me jealous (actually that’s a lie, there is) but this orchestra is definitely one of them. I will add them to my list of must see orchestras/ensembles when they come to London alongside the Concertgebouw, Bavarian RSO, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Staatskapelles Berlin and Dresden, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Spira Mirabliis, Ensemble Intercomtemporain, Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, Les Arts Florissants, Freiburg Baroque, Europa Galante, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Mahler Chamber Orchestra and, vain hope, Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Mind you with the LSO under Rattle we now have the best in the world, fact.