Total Immersion: Stockhausen, Barbican, 17 January 2009

Also posted to Musical Pointers, alongside two other reviews from the day. Also recommended: Ben.H’s review.

Adieu; Klavierstücke I–IV, V, VII; Kontra-Punkte; Choral; Chöre für Doris; Klavierstück IX; Litanei 97

Guildhall New Music Ensemble
Richard Baker (conductor)
BBC Singers David Hill (conductor)
Nicolas Hodges (piano)

Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s

Inori

BBC SO
David Robertson (conductor)
Kathinka Pasveer (dancer/mime)
Alain Louafi (dancer/mime)

Barbican Hall

Hymnen

Barbican Hall

The Barbican’s day of ‘Total Immersion’ in Stockhausen invited a reconciliation between his early, acclaimed works and his mystifying later career. This was the tone of the first concert, at least, a peculiar mix of gilt successes (Kontra-Punkte and the Klavierstücke), oddities (Adieu, Choral and Chöre für Doris) and one late baffler (Litanei 97).

Adieu set the lopsided ball rolling. Wind quintet is an odd medium: it’s vibrantly coloured but struggles with profundity. Its best repertoire (Stockhausen’s own Zeitmasze notwithstanding) is lighthearted and ironic. It is, therefore, a strange ensemble to set a memorial for but, as often with Stockhausen (the piece was written in memory of the son of Wilhelm Meyer, an oboist who had championed Zeitmasze), the pragmatic inspiration came first and the notes would have to follow as best they could.

This pragmatic approach is one of the most distinctive qualities of Stockhausen’s overall output. Adieu is an uncharacteristic cut-up of Mozartian cadences and microtonal fogs, but it somehow works. Stockhausen’s ear preferred the obdurate, and crude, but this gives his music a unique immediacy. It sounds at first so wrong and so unreflective, but it is presented so vividly that you can’t help accepting that the ‘wrongness’ must be in one’s own preconceptions and not in the music. The two short early works, Choral and Chöre für Doris, date from a time before Stockhausen had found a way to project that confidence but their naivety hints at the unwavering forcefulness that would soon come: Choral is an early attempt at serialism, and its simple repeating statements of a melodic row over a homorhythmic harmony is brazenly elementary.

Perhaps the historical placement of Stockhausen’s early works at the forefront of a musical revolution – wherein they can be regarded as masterpieces or travesties without the bother of having to listen to them – has softened their edge and brought them closer to us, an advantage not given to the later works, which remain to be heard. But now that it is possible to hear past their reputations let’s not forget how peculiar those earlier pieces are. These supposedly formalistic works continually undermine themselves with surprise twists and unexpected moments of drama. They pose some of the most awkward challenges to any norm of musical listening, and in this way open up imaginative worlds far greater than their immediate surfaces.

Litanei 97 was the most recent and strangest offering of the day. Highly ritualised, its score dictates every detail down to choreography and costumes. The aural aspects were quite simple, in fact: a long text by Stockhausen was recited by the choir, whose rhythms, registers and glissandos (but not pitches) were notated. Each verse began with a sung introit and the striking of Japanese temple gongs. The theatrical side might have been better done – the BBC Singers moved as surely as a teenager at his first school disco – but the music was surprisingly effective. I don’t know if I liked it, but for all its simplicity it filled and shaped its 25 minutes very successfully.

The complexion of the day was now changed and moved from this extremity, through the magnificent Inori to, several hours later, the sound of the composer’s breath at the end of Hymnen. When it was last performed at the Barbican, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, I found Hymnen’s egotism quite nauseating. Three days before the end of the Bush era, I expected to hear it quite differently. This time the composer’s many interventions (his voice, his breath and his unravelling of the world’s national anthems) sounded like insecurity rather than dominance. There is no sense of polyphony in Hymnen: events happen one after another, somehow finding enough energy to push through to the next minute. This again is a naïve, unreflective way to compose, and requires a leap of faith from the listener. Yet I knew that it worked when, during the final minutes, as a drastically slowed-down Swiss anthem transposes into the composer’s breathing, I found my own breath had become just as slow and deliberate and that the piece had not stamped me into submission but it and I had become one with each other.

Stockhausen had a gift for the large-scale, single-minded form, which I think may be the strongest feature of his later music. Inori – 75 minutes long, with the orchestra divided into high and low instruments either side of an elevated platform, on which stand two mime-dancers – is a classic introduction to the type. Its plan is of a slow movement from rhythmicised single pitches to complex polyphony, through which it hopes to convey a vague, new agey, global spirituality: the title means prayer, invocation or adoration, and the two mimes perform an endless sequence of prayer gestures from around the world. Any cynicism was again blown away, however, by the absolute assurance of the music (and an exemplary performance). I don’t know anyone else who could have written music like this, whose plan is so banal, whose aspirations are so twee, that yet speaks so powerfully in an unmistakable voice.

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