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.