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Karlheinz STOCKHAUSEN (1928-2007)
Mantra for two pianists (1970)[67:33]
Xenia Pestova (piano); Pascal Meyer (piano); Jan Panis (electronics)
rec. 7-10 September, 2009, Espace Découverte, Philharmonie Luxembourg. DDD
NAXOS 8.572398 [67:33]

Experience Classicsonline

Stockhausen's inspiration for Mantra was a tune which he had been humming, almost in 'free fall' ("I just let my imagination completely loose") on a long car journey in 1969 in the USA. A simple figure is repeated many times (there are 26 tracks on this CD; 887 bars) though with great variety and many different moods. It was originally intended for two pianists but with a sound projectionist, whose equipment, it is stipulated, must be completely inconspicuous to any audience present. Indeed, the equipment's output for the most part is close in timbre to that of the piano … finger bells of equal dynamic to that of the piano around the 320s bars [tr.13] and blocks in the higher 300s, for instance.
It is the variety and approachability of this simple conception of Stockhausen that first strikes the listener - whatever your preconceptions of the composer may be. There are changes in tempo, length of phrasing, in the relative burden of advancing the melody (a simple one, to be sure) by the two pianists (Xenia Pestova, Pascal Meyer) and by Jan Panis (electronics). Not long into the performance you cannot fail to detect a focus, an enthusiasm and commitment for the exploration that characterises this work.
Mantra is also a significant piece in Stockhausen's career. It represents his first fully scored piece for some time. At the height of his fame, the composer had become more and more disquieted at the 'debate', let's call it, within his Stockhausen Group (and indeed between it and himself) over precisely who was creating the music they performed - so much of what was actually heard relied either on chance or on (only) a structure to be elaborated on. Mantra puts an end to that. The work is also significant in that it represents the start of what was - effectively - Stockhausen's last compositional phase: his 'formula' technique.
Its simplicity and concentric nature remind one of some of the ideas of Feldman; though Mantra seems to have much more energy. Less energy than Ives, though he's present in Mantra's pages as well. The fragmentation of Crumb runs through Mantra too. Some dozen and a half of the 26 groups of bars, which range in length from 22 seconds to five and a half minutes, have 'titles' - usually descriptions of how they are to be played … 'Sehr langsam' ('Very slowly'); 'Metallic chords'; 'Stimmen' ('voices'); 'Gamelan-like' and so on.
These are all characteristics that have a strong theatrical flavour. So is the entire piece - in conception and execution: the two pianists face each other engaged in far more than merely playing the same work. The performance can assume the qualities of a duel, of intense collaboration, even of a comedic double act. Neither Xenia Pestova (from New Zealand and Canada) nor Pascal Meyer (Luxembourg) has other recordings to their credit. But they approach this interesting music with real flair and directness. Indeed, precision and concentration are vital if they are to convey the essence of the repetitions - which they do from first bar to last. Although the result is of measured advocacy on their part, it's neither self-conscious not obtrusive. Their playing is musical first and last.
Panis' role is essential too: he worked extensively with Stockhausen. And indeed received the composer's approval for the digital equipment which he had to design once the analogue equipment necessary to produce the ring modulation was no longer available.
A highly satisfactory and technically, expressively and interpretatively very pleasing realisation of a key work by Stockhausen, then. There are others in the current catalogue - that from 1994 by Yvar Mikhashoff,  Rosalind Bevan and Ole Orsted on New Albion 25 would probably be the best comparison CD. For sheer energy and well-directed energy at that, and a controlled power which truly places our listening experience as close to the centre of the composer’s conception as any, this latest Naxos release can be commended. The recording and acoustic are clean and uncluttered. The booklet contains much useful material to help understand the context and strengths of what is a really convincing piece by Stockhausen. 

Mark Sealey

































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