Pierre-Laurent Aimard Leads an Enthralling Stockhausen Weekend in London

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Stockhausen: Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Tamara Stefanovich (pianos), Dirk Rothbrust (percussion), Marco Stroppa (sound diffusion), London Voices, Apartment House. Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room, London, 1. and 2.6.2019. (MB)

Pierre-Laurent Aimard
(c) Marco Borggreve

Stockhausen – Klaverstücke I-XI; Kontakte; Stimmung; Für kommende Zeiten; Zyklus; Mantra

Laura Forbes L’Estrange (sopranos)
Clara Sanabras (mezzo-soprano)
Richard Eteson, Ben Parry (tenors)
Nicholas Garrett (bass)
Ian Dearden (sound projection)
Simon Limbrick (percussion)
Philip Thomas (piano)
Kerry Yong (piano, keyboard)
Rhodri Davies (harp)
Anton Lukoszevieze (cello)

As Amsterdam celebrated ‘Aus Licht’, not quite the complete Licht premiere we still await, but a generous tasting from all seven operas, those of us unable to attend had to content ourselves with a Stockhausen weekend in London instead. It was certainly an intense couple of days, rewarding too, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard at its heart, just as he had been of the Stockhausen performances at least year’s Musikfest Berlin (three of them reviewed here and here).

I have purposely not re-read what I wrote then, though I shall have a look after posting. The enormity of Aimard’s achievement in the first eleven Klavierstücke, followed here by Kontakte (in a different programme in Berlin), was not diminished by a second hearing, quite the contrary. Indeed, a fundamental theme to everything heard here, in many ways a more diverse offering than in Berlin, was the crucial role played by performance in Stockhausen. Aimard’s ordering remained III, IV, II, I, V, VIII, VII, VI, XI, IX, X. Some people, I know, would have preferred the first four to have been played I-IV, but for me, the order of chronological writing worked well too. The third took its leave from Stockhausen and Webern, but starker, more northern (less Austrian?) Hard on its heels, the fourth initially yielded, almost as if a second subject, but quickly went on its own way: in the same line, yet different. Aimard’s gleaming Yamaha sound seemed ideal for the fusion of musical meaning and serial requirements that lies at the heart of the composer’s art – and thus at the performer’s too; for here was no doubting Aimard’s internalisation of this music, just as there would not be for Beethoven or Messiaen. The second piece sang and struggled, detail of duration and thus of meaning at its heart; the first proved frenetic, especially when not overtly so, in its post-Schoenbergian build-up. Time, then, for a little pause.

There was an intriguingly Boulezian éclat to the opening of the fifth piece, though its development – I think we can call it that, at a pinch – proved once again more overtly Germanic. Much the same might be said of its later chordal progress. The scale was, of course, quite different here from the shorter, earlier pieces; it was made not only to feel so, but necessarily so. An intensely dramatic eighth piece seemed, at least in retrospect, to prepare the way for the artistry with which, in the seventh, repeated pitch was ‘repeated’, or perhaps better, reinstated. (Such was how it felt, anyway.) It was as if this was the moment Stockhausen truly began to itch for the stage, even if it were that of a late Wagnerian ‘invisible theatre’. Aimard’s mastery of resonance already looked forward, fascinatingly, to the second and third concerts of what one would generally, quite rightly, think of as a very different Stockhausen. Then came the sixth, to which, again in retrospect, everything seemed to have been working towards. It sounded generative in a fashion both ‘traditional’ and anything but. How its silences told! How everything else did too, in all its combinations of parameters and their relationships. Monumental was the word for it.

There was opening éclat to the eleventh piece too. By now, there was little way one could not but listen to every note and its relationship to every other – or rather, at least think and feel that was what one was doing. Such was the way Stockhausen and Aimard had led us in. Were those strainings towards electronic sound? Perhaps it was fancy, but is that not too part of musical composition, performance, and listening? Likewise in the ninth piece, albeit in more chordal terms – yet still in terms of something greater. What was ‘old’, what was ‘new’? One asked, even if one could not answer. Finally, we heard the gloved scherzando of Klavierstück X, pyrotechnics and poetry as one: a Feux d’artifice for the atomic age. It was terrifying, thrilling, anything other than consoling. Sheer variety of sound, of voices, of music was very much the thing. And if the final phrase were not quite throwaway Haydn, nor was it quite not that.

For Kontakte, following an interval, Aimard returned (!) with Dirk Rothbrust (percussion) and Marco Stroppa (sound diffusion). Here, virtuosity was returned with interest: à 3, as it were. Theatre was more overt, in every sense, spatial performance and hearing to the fore from the outset. Precision, however, was every bit as crucial, as awe-inspiringly realised, as in the solo piano works. It was interesting to reflect, historically, on how twentieth-century percussion may have paved the way for electronics; such seemed to be part of the ‘moment’ here, at least. At one point, I almost fancied I heard helicopters about to take flight. Structure and its dynamic realisation in time, form, proved dizzyingly circular, yet not quite. This was music-making at its most open, in at least one sense.

Immediately afterwards, we moved from the Queen Elizabeth Hall to the Purcell Room for Stimmung. How one responds to a performance is perhaps an unusually personal thing. I, however, found this London Voices rendition especially involving, the drama heightened, verbal acuity to the fore. There was ritual, yes, but of an approachable kind, perhaps more akin to what we experience in general concert life, less ‘other’. Overtones did their work, but so did words (whatever one thinks of them). There were pros and cons to hearing this after the piano works and Kontakte; for me, on this occasion, the former outweighed the latter.

Likewise, after a good few hours’ break, for the following day’s Für kommende Zeiten. Here, the intuitive music that is not improvisation, the verbal scores that seem both to require reading and performance in just as emphatic a way as the Klavierstücke yet also not to do so, will perhaps always remain a mystery, at least to those of us listening rather than performing. The splendid performers of Apartment House, however, took us on a journey as fascinating, at many times as unexpected, as those to which many of us are more accustomed. We did not hear all seventeen pieces, but seven over about an hour and a quarter, ‘Intervall’, for piano duo (the only piece in which precise instrumentation is specified) proving quite the curtain-raiser, as our blindfolded pianists, Philip Thomas and Kerry Yong, acclimatised and gained their sight, in the process seemingly enabling our hearing to become listening. ‘Verlängerung’, ‘Zugovogel’, ‘Vorahnung’, ‘Japan’, ‘Anhalt’, ‘Spektren’, and ‘Schwingung’ followed. It is doubtless the height of Orientalism to say there were hints of an Orient that seemed to go beyond Orientalism, but such was our illusion.

For the final concert, we returned to the Queen Elizabeth Hall for Zyklus and Mantra. Rothbrust treated us to a mesmerising performance of the former, centre stage in every sense. Relationships again manifested themselves not only as points of interest but as the binding material of the music – if not just as in Beethoven, then in a way one might relate to his music, should one wish. Barriers between tuned and untuned percussion seemed to fall by the way. Here was a new orchestra: no gamelan, but Stockhausen’s own, Rothbrust’s own too. Such was the variegation of timbre and its implications, one could imagine never wanting to hear anything else. This was a cycle that was both just that and so much more.

Aimard returned for Mantra, with Stroppa and Tamara Stefanovich. I found myself making comparisons with Boulez’s second book of Structures, which I had heard – and seen – Aimard and Stefanovich perform in this same hall in 2011. Not that the works have very much in common; it was as much a visual-dramatic way in, and very soon more a contrast than a comparison. Two pianos, two pianists, then, played with bells, became bells and their masters. What was the relationship between acoustic and electronic, between work and performance, between instrument(s) and their performers? Such questions, such contests and collaborations, were part of the drama, but so too was an almost conventional battle royal heard at one point, Stockhausen’s often overlooked (German) sense of humour certainly given a fair hearing in this case. His music proved as obstinate as Beethoven and as strange to us as – well, life on Sirius. Aimard and Stefanovich afforded us as strong a sense of the whole as they might have done in Bach or Brahms; within that framework, there were in equal measure to be heard, felt, even thought, great subtlety and starkness. There was ritual, of course, but again not of an especially esoteric kind. There was no doubting either the composer’s voice or that of his performers. The sense of aftershock following the pianists’ howling proved almost Mahlerian. What did it mean? Who knows? Perhaps the question is as irrelevant as Stravinsky would have us believe, or as the ritual of later Stockhausen works such as Inori might suggest. The ensuing two-piano-plus toccata proved at least as mesmerising as Zyklus; and likewise changed the face of all that came thereafter. Form manifested itself in work, performance, and listening – even if, sometimes especially if, one could not put a name to it. There are, after all, many such mysteries in our world and beyond.

Mark Berry

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