S&H Festival review


Elektronic Festival: Works by Karlheinz Stockhausen. Barbican Hall, October 13th-15th, 2001. Various Artists; Karlheinz Stockhausen (sound projection). (CC)

Performances of the music of Karlheinz Stockausen in this country have been nowhere near as frequent as his compositional stature would appear to demand. The pieces in this Festival provided an invaluable opportunity to hear some newer works (as well as some old friends) presented by the composer himself. The high audience attendance suggested strongly the interest and following that Stockhausen receives on these shores.

The performance of the purely electronic version of Hymnen on October 13th was an inspiring experience and one that gave a clue as to the seemingly unlimited scope of Stockhausen's imagination. Hymnen was very much a product of its time (it was premiered in Cologne in 1967): the sky, and beyond in Stockhausen’s case, was the limit in those days and a virtuoso sense of discovery permeates the score. National Anthems (‘Hymnen’) from a multitude of countries juxtapose and combine with one another over four ‘Regions’. Stockhausen has referred to these anthems as ‘sound signs’ and, as always with signs, they can take on a multitude of meanings. Stockhausen could hardly have foreseen, however, the new levels of meaning which were inevitably attached to the appearances of the American National Anthem (which features in the second centre of the third region). Its placing in this World music merely served to underline the humanitarian egalitarianism of the work’s ethos. This is music for all Mankind and all nations on a supremely large scale (the piece lasts nearly two hours). All the more laughable, then, that Stockhausen should find himself embroiled in controversy about a misquoted comment he made at a press conference which cast doubt on this Festival happening at all. Space precludes examination of this aspect here, but interested readers who wish to read a full report should visit www.stockhausen.org.

The electronic sound system was a triumph, as sounds moved freely about in space (the spacial element became extra clear if one followed Stockhausen’s request that we listen with our eyes closed). Stockhausen’s self-declared compositional premise is typically all encompassing: ‘I’m trying to go beyond collage, heterogeneity and pluralism, and to find unity; to produce music that brings us to the essential ONE’. One thing was clear: this is truly individual, great music which projected these high ideals with fine compositional focus.

On the afternoon of Sunday 14th, three pieces from the massive opera cycle, Licht surrounded a performance of Klavierstück X (1954). If Hymnen is a massively-conceived piece, Licht is positively mind-boggling. In 1977, Stockhausen embarked on a set of seven operas, one for each day of the week. Now, there is only a small amount of work before the last, Sunday, is finally complete.

It seems there is almost a new type of ‘super-performer’ is arising in response to the unique challenges of Stockhausen’s music. Not only do these performers have to show a complete command of their chosen instrument and respond to Stockhausen’s demands: they also have to reflect the musico-dramatic elements required. Each of the three main characters (Michael, Eve and Lucifer) is represented by a singer, an instrumentalist-actor and a dancer.

Stockhausen’s own son, Markus, is a superbly talented trumpeter and opened the concert with ‘Eingang und Formel’ (‘Entrance and Formula’) from the beginning of ‘Michael's Journey Round the Earth’ (Thursday). After a stunning performance of Klavierstück X (1954) by Frank Gutschmidt (which the programme notes describe as ‘electronic music without electronics’), in which silences were an integral, mesmeric part of the music, another offshoot of ‘Michael's Journey Round the Earth’ was presented. ‘Mission und Himmelfahrt’ (‘Mission and Ascension’) for trumpet and basset-horn was performed by Markus Stockhausen and Barbara Bouman. There was a real chemistry between the two of them. Perhaps the greatest impression of this concert was made by the flautist, Kathinka Pasveer, in her duet with Suzanne Stephens’ basset-horn in ‘Ave’ (from Monday, 1984/5). Her sheer beauty of sound and mastery of her instrument were breathtaking, all combined in a performance that brought out the wit inherent in the piece. Stephens was hardly any less impressive. As Stockhausen wrote, ‘Mozart's magic flautist has expanded his abilities to an indescribable degree: … His Adored One no longer sings in ethnic German ... but rather in the most international language of the basset horn’.

The concert of electronic music that evening presented pieces which are now recognised not just as landmarks in the history of electronics, but also as major pieces of the twentieth century in any medium. The painstaking work involved in the earlier pieces just makes Stockhausen’s achievements all the more impressive. The two incredibly beautiful Electronic Studies (1953 and 1954) emerged as far more than warm-up exercises for the Gesang der Jünglinge (1955/6), despite the composer’s assertion that they were experiments and that in Gesang, ‘everything explodes - possibilities, vision, musical boundaries’.

Like Hymnen, Telemusik projects an international outlook by referring to many different musics from all around the World. Each section is announced by a percussive stroke from a Japanese temple instrument, making the structure relatively easy to follow. However, I have long harboured doubts about the stature of this piece, and I do not accept that Stockhausen achieved his aim of composing ‘music of the whole Earth, of all countries and races’. As a purely musical experience, Kontakte (heard here in its purely electronic version) is a far stronger statement. It was fitting that it had the entire second half to itself.

The performance of Friday from Light (the fifth part of the cycle) on Monday 15th was a revelation. This opera received its premiere at the Leipzig Opera in September 1996, and depicts Eve’s temptation by Ludon (Lucifer). It is a true Gesamtkunstwerk: in that all gestures from the characters are specifically composed. Three layers of musical events alternate to articulate the structure of Friday from Light: an eight-track layer of electronic music, twelve sound-scenes which emerge from and recede back into the layer and ten ‘real scenes’ whose action takes place on stage and tells of Eve’s temptation and its aftermath.

Of the soloists, Angela Tunstall as Eve displayed an astonishing range and Nicholas Isherwood was imposing as Ludon. Once more, however, the most lasting impressions were left by Kathinka Pasveer and Suzanne Stephens as Lufa and Elu respectively. It was the richness of Stockhausen’s invention which confirmed the positive impressions of the four concerts and, indeed, confirmed his status as one of the greatest of living composers. His music continues to stimulate and challenge. Long may he continue.


Colin Clarke

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