The London Sinfonietta Celebrates Karlheinz Stockhausen

08/12/2017

Stockhausen: London Sinfonietta and Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble / Pascal Rophé (conductor). Sound Intermedia; Sophie Motley (stage director); Tony Simpson (lighting designer); Jonathan Berman (assistant conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 6.12.2017. (CC)

Stockhausen – Tierkreis for orchestra (1974, 2004/2007); Trans for orchestra and tape (1971)

It was wonderful to see yet more celebration, after the recent Stimmung, of the genius of Karlheinz Stockhausen, marking the tenth anniversary of his death. The piece Tierkreis (Zodiac) was left unfinished at Stockhausen’s death: we have ten out of the twelve zodiacal signs. The 1974 version was for music boxes as part of Musik im Bauch. Later in life, Stockhausen produced the two versions for orchestra, one in 2004 and the second, Fünf weitere Sternzeichen (Five More Star Signs) completed the night before he died. He may have been also planning to complete the missing two star signs (Cancer and Leo) the next year. The piece has appeared in a massive variety of guises, perhaps most interestingly in a performance by two lutes (recorded by Peter Söderberg and Sven Åberg – review).

The version here was miraculous in its cleanliness of orchestration. This is music that some might not guess is by Stockhausen: charming, approachable. Only the music-theatre drama of a tuba player walking onstage towards the end, playing as he walks and taking an early bow from the audience really brought this towards the Stockhausen people might expect (it was superbly done by the Manson Ensemble’s Stuart Beard).  The actual music seemed to reference Schoenberg, but also Weill, and was fascinating at every turn. The evening was to have been conducted by Oliver Knussen, who was unavailable so all credit to Pascal Rophé, whose direction was clear and obviously born of a detailed knowledge of the score.

I expect, though, that most people would have come to hear Trans. The DGG LP cover was fairly iconic back in the day, with its purple haze (here achieved by lighting). Thick black curtains separated audience from stage until the performance began, itself a reflection of the separation between the string players at the front of the stage and the (mainly) unseen performers at the back of the stage (they themselves occasionally transgressing boundaries in cadenza-like solos). Some 40 string players at the front represent orchestral musicians as ‘factory workers’ – automatons who play slowly and without emotion until several of their number, too, break ranks and, in moments of pure theatre, provide their own commentary/cadenza on proceedings. In addition to all of this, the electronic sound of a loom shuttle moves spatially from left to right and back again, acting as a structural marker and sometimes triggering action. This is Stockhausen at his finest: almost ritualistic and certainly with an intent to take us to another reality, while simultaneously offering a comment on the conditions of musicians in the early 1970s (it dates from 1971).

The steely sustained strings at the opening still make an effect (although listening to the Donaueschingen premiere from October 1971 still carries the electric frisson of that moment when the sound was unleashed on the world). It is as if we immediately exit clock time, much as Stimmung invites us to, but with a very different ‘landing place’. A terrific, indeed magical piece, Trans invites us to listen to the music of the wind, percussion and brass through both a sonic and a visual haze, a distancing on one level but at another, an invocation of dream-space on another (it should come as no surprise to learn that the work was conceived in a dream by Stockhausen). Along the way, one hears jazz influences again and that shuttle, a weird sort of carriage-return in music, for those readers that still remember typewriters. A perfectly gauged tutti crescendo was one of the highlights of this magnificent event; but it was really the overall impression that was the point, a reminder that there was once exploration of internal worlds on a grand state, a time when everything seemed possible.

A superb evening of performances. Is it possible that the present spate of performances of Stockhausen’s music could lead to a reappraisal of his output?

Colin Clarke

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