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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS

Karlheinz STOCKHAUSEN (1928-2007)
CD 1
Zyklus (1959) [12:53]
Spiral I (1968) [15:07]
Pole (1970) [21:56]
Spiral II [16:08]
CD 2
Japan (1968-71) [11:41]
Wach (1968-71) [19:57]
Tierkreis [26:31] (1974/75)
In Freundschaft [16:45] (1977/97)
Tristan Fry - percussion (Zyklus)
Harald Bojé - electronium & short wave radio (Spiral I, Pole, Spiral II) and woodblock (Japan), Peter Eötvös - percussion and electronics (Pole, Spiral II, Japan), Christoph Caskel - percussion (Japan), Markus Stockhausen - trumpet (Tierkreis, In Freundschaft), Margareta Hurholz - organ (Tierkreis)
rec. CD 1 and Japan & Wach, 8-10 December 1971, No.2 Studio, Abbey Road, London, and August 1974, January 1975 (Zyklus). 21-24 April 1992, Pfarrkirche, Waldsassen (Tierkreis), September 1992, Rosenhof, Erfstadt (In Freundschaft).
EMI CLASSICS 6955982 [66:30 + 75:08]
Experience Classicsonline

On 10 October 2008, Stockhausen was commemorated at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague with the dedication of one of the electronic studios, and a performance of his final, monumental electronic work Cosmic Pulses. As the lights went back up on a stunned audience, the first, acutely dismissive remark made to me by a former colleague who shall remain nameless was, “…he pretty much lost it after Trans anyway…” This is the sort of dichotomy which has surrounded Stockhausen for as long as I can remember. This ranges from the literal effect of his music, to the kind of response one has to his grandiose and visionary attitude to the creation of his music, leading to one commentary of the magnum opus opera project Licht as being “an act of gigantic egomania.”

More has been written about Stockhausen than can be comfortably accommodated in your average municipal library and I don’t plan on contributing my thoughts and experiences here, other than to acknowledge the significance Stockhausen has had on all our perceptions of music whether we realise it or not. There is a kind of dichotomy in the programme on this double CD as well. There may be some pleasant surprises later on, but anyone anticipating ‘difficulties’ with Stockhausen will probably have their expectations realised with the earlier works on this set.

Zyklus has become a classic of percussion repertoire. Written as a test piece for a percussion competition it has been recorded numerous times, though Tristan Fry’s excellent performance has for a long time been the standard to which other players aspire. Played from a graphic score, the work itself is much as you might expect, with plenty of virtuoso hitting of various tuned and un-tuned percussion instruments. Interesting gestures such as glissandi on the marimba render that particular tuned instrument into an effect, but where individual notes and melodic fragments do occur they shine through like islands of brightness. As ever with this kind of piece, the spectacle of seeing it performed is half the fun, but for percussion students it will be a fine thing to have this recording easily available once more.

The two Spiral pieces differ in performers, the first being ‘played’ by Harald Bojé, and the second being a version prepared by Peter Eötvös. This is the piece which was heard over 1,300 times at the spherical German pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka, and from these two different performances you gain an impression of the almost random nature of the music. The material is partially derived from short-wave radios, which ‘leak’ broadcast fragments as well as creating various sounds such as Morse signals, and a wide variety of sound textures such as static and sliding sine waves. The sounds are processed and manipulated through space in a way which is only really hinted at in these stereo recordings - such works really need a surround speaker setup to give their true spatial effect. For me, these pieces work best when the material is pared down to almost static sound fields, out of which haunting musical moments emerge. Created for Expo ‘70, Pole introduces a two player element into the mix, and if your right ear can get beyond the penetrating high sine waves near the beginning then you will hear how fascinating chamber-music elements occur as the two players respond to each others’ sounds.

CD 2 opens with a continuation of the 1971 Abbey Road recording session. Japan is a fairly meditative expanse of electronic sounds, with the colours of low percussion and the ‘ping’ of woodblocks adding punctuation to a fascinating landscape of the imagination. Even when the intensity rises over the arc of the piece’s time-span, the sense of contemplative silence is never entirely absent. Wach, like Japan, comes from a set of 17 pieces written between 1968 and 1971 entitled Für kommende Zeiten. These scores are abstract in the extreme, and as much to do with the working processes that Stockhausen had in mind at the time rather than anything that can be ‘read’ in a conventional sense today. In this way, these recordings are an authentic artefact of something comparable to ‘authentic’ early music interpretation. The music may seem to have a strange remoteness and a language which is hard to interpret, but this must have something to do with the very personal nature of the composer’s intentions, and the unique synthesis between composer and performer. This may amount to improvisation of a certain kind, but the best and most spontaneous performances sound like improvisation: the only difference here is that the players are being guided by Stockhausen rather than Schütz.

I first encountered Tierkreis as the B-side of the 1977 DG recording of Musik im Bauch. These were the little pieces for each sign of the Zodiac made for music boxes, and on this recording they appear in one of their numerous arrangements - this time for trumpet and organ. I still like the intimate charm of those music boxes best, but the musical material lends itself well to the colour of the organ, and Markus Stockhausen’s trumpet sings or speaks the different character sketches with maximum empathy. Unlike the electronic works, these pieces often owe as much to the tonal worlds of Genzmer or Hindemith, and present an entirely different facet of Stockhausen’s musical character.

Im Freundschaft was conceived as a solo piece playable on different instruments, but originally for clarinet. There are many aspects of this piece which may or may not help an appreciation, such as the so-called “special art of listening”, which has to do with a discovery of the various layers of Stockhausen’s method of “horizontal polyphony”. To my mind, this is not particularly difficult music, though its strange extended or repetitive trills and often fragmented and angular impression may leave many listeners cold.

As with so much of Stockhausen’s work, the strong theatrical and often physical elements in performance are almost entirely lost in a recording, as well as much of that powerful sense of music being created ‘on the spot’. With all of the pieces in this classic collection, a mindset open to experiencing music in a different way than to mere consumption is something of a requirement. Patience may reward however, and in the words of the composer, “…there is always hope!”

Dominy Clements



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