More Outstanding Performances of Stockhausen in Berln

20/09/2018

Musikfest Berlin 2018 [12] – Stockhausen: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano, celesta), Dirk Rothbrust (percussion), Benjamin Kobler (piano), Tamara Stefanovich (piano), Marco Stroppa (electronics). Grosser Sendesaal des rbb and Kammermusiksaal, Berlin, 15 & 17.9.2018. (MB)

15 September

Stockhausen – Telemusik (1966); Refrain (1959); Zyklus (1959); Kontakte (1958-60)

17 September

Stockhausen – Mantra (1970)

For two further concerts of music by Stockhausen we moved to the splendid Westend concert hall in Hans Poelzig’s Haus des Rundfunks for a varied programme of electronic and ensemble music, before returning to the Philharmonie’s Kammermusiksaal for Mantra. (Alas, I had to hurry back to London for a meeting and thus missed the final event, a performance of Inori.)

The purely electronic Telemusik opened the first concert. If I say that it sounds more than ever a work of its time, I do not mean that in a disparaging sense; it does not only sound as such. But there is something engagingly remote – just as there will be for Mozart – as well as close to us in hearing such a work; it is now, as indeed one might say of any of these works, a classic. The lights went off. A projected sun appeared above the stage. Who knows which? Our own, under which the languages and cultures of the world make hay before the end of days? Sirius? Some other? A generic light, even? We seemed to hear its rays, their light, their refraction, even perhaps reflection (in whatever sense you care). Songs of the world, of some other world, were heard, sung, chanted, reinvented. A world of music(s) was ours and yet was not; it was now of the past, almost as if we had visited it, as Stockhausen once had visited us. And with that, we made our own synthesis – even in, perhaps particularly in a work without visible ‘performance’. Make of that what you will; that, perhaps, is the point.

Refrain, for three performers (Benjamin Kobler on piano, Pierre-Laurent Aimard on celesta, and Dirk Rothbrust on percussion), came next. If Telemusik offered ritual of a sort both old and new, so too did this. I could not help but wonder whether Boulez had occasionally had it in mind as a precursor to his orchestral Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna. It was mesmerising to watch as well as to listen to; the distinction seemed perhaps unusually false. Serialist theatre, in which freedom and organisation were revealed as two sides of the same coin, revealed silence also to be as crucial as it would be to Bruckner (that despite the giggles of two audience members next to me). Those strange cries of – to? – another world seemed already to look forward to Mantra and the Inori I was fated not to hear.

What an array of instruments one sees and hears in Zyklus, for solo percussionist. I say that not simply, or even principally, in terms of quantity; anyone, given a budget, can offer a large number of instruments. But here the arrangement, the interrelationship, the unity in diversity and vice versa again suggested a form of serialist music theatre for all the senses. Rothbrust’s virtuosity was astounding, but it rightly never came across as mere virtuosity; this was a performance, an act of formal revelation. Variety of attack and reverberation struck as the work of a piano writ large: again, surely implications or at least parallels for later works by both Stockhausen and Boulez. Bells seemed to recall in context both previous works on the programme. Aimard and Kobler both crept into the hall to listen, their collegiality richly rewarded indeed.

After the interval, Aimard, Rothbrust, and Marco Stroppa (electronics) gave us another fine performance: this time of Kontakte. A spatial element always seems to bring out something very special in Stockhausen – and so it was here. So too does theatre, of whatever kind, the piece initiated by Aimard’s rising to sound – not necessarily in the way the innocent eye and ear might expect – the gong: a moment and sound with clear implications for what was to come. Electronic sounds enhanced, responded, developed, just as any other chamber music response, if we may call it that, would. Rothbrust and Stroppa reminded us that percussion and electronics were the growth sections of twentieth-century music, perhaps not only Western art music. If anything, they – and Stockhausen – helped here to revive the fortunes of the piano. Not, of course, that an artists such as Aimard needs any such help, nor is his part restricted to the piano. His part at times seemed to take off where the clusters of the tenth Klavierstück had left off. What virtuosity there was to be heard here, both solo and ensemble: this was, as so often with Stockhausen, music both as we knew it and as we did not.

Transformation – to be traced back, if we wish, through Schoenberg and Liszt to Bach – was very much a key to that work’s unendliche Melodie, to borrow not entirely inappropriately from Wagner. So too it was for Mantra, at the Kammermusiksaal, in which Aimard and Stroppa were joined by Tamara Stefanovich. Stockhausen was quite clear that the unfolding of this work was not to be understood as variation form, whatever it might seem to have in common with such writing – and performance. For there is no variation as such, although there is much expansion and contraction: perhaps not unlike another star or how we see, feel, and think about it. So it was here, a fine, crucial line trod with care, understanding, and the keenest sense of drama. That drama here, as elsewhere, was architectonic, just as the architecture was dramatic. It was at times absurd: absurd in its seriousness and absurd in its child-like absurdity. These were players, these were outstanding performances in which we knew we were in the safest as well as the most thrilling of hands. We could therefore surrender to the telling of a story just as much as to the progression of a ritual. The more we listened, the more we watched too, the more we heard and experienced. Form – its importance can hardly be exaggerated here, both in itself and for so much later music – was once again revealed in and through performance. One marvelled in what Stockhausen elicited, what he re-invented, but above all in what he said, in what he sang. A staccato sounded, perhaps even signified as if it had never done so before, so too a tremolo, so even did an arpeggio. If Schoenberg had felt the air of another planet, perhaps this was indeed the sound of something that lay yet further beyond.

Mark Berry

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