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Karlheinz STOCKHAUSEN (1928-2007)
Klavierstück I [2:40]
Klavierstück II [1:17]
Klavierstück III [0:37]
Klavierstück IV [2:46]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Sonata 28 in A major Op. 101 (1816) [20:36]
Klavierstück V [5:10]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Sonata 31 in C minor Op. 111 (1822) [27:20]
Klavierstück VI [20:33]
Pi-hsien Chen (piano)
rec. 2014, Attenbach, Germany
HAT HUT RECORDS hat[now]ART 193 [81:05]

Taiwanese pianist Pi-hsien Chen has appeared in recordings ranging from Bach to Höller, and her classical/contemporary credentials have already been put to the test in an earlier release for Hat Hut, mixing Cage and Scarlatti (hat[now]ART 188).

In his notes for this release, Christopher Fox takes the 1970 ‘meeting’ of Stockhausen and Beethoven at the former’s lecture in Dusseldorf as a starting point. He is informative on these pieces but, caught between a rock and a hard place, is ultimately inconclusive: “although I have suggested there are similarities to be found in these composers’ approaches to innovation and technology, fundamentally they could not be more different.” Big claims are also made for the effect of their juxtaposition: “To listen to this music in the sequence recorded here, alternating Stockhausen and Beethoven, then Stockhausen again, is … to have one’s ideas about music turned on their head time after time, to be confronted with the shock of the new in all its revolutionary diversity.” I rather hope, without too much disrespect for the undeniably knowledgable Mr Fox, who is as I say on a hiding to nothing, there is an element of the b*llsh*t generator in this kind of writing for which I have little patience these days. Take the following: “In Beethoven, even in those moments in the slow music which propose a sort of repose, there is an irresistible forward momentum, a propulsive drive towards the new, the unknown, perhaps even the impossible. By contrast, in Stockhausen’s music, animation and stasis are always balanced; a multitude of possibilities is being played out, but it is a multitude which the composer already holds in his head.” Now swap the composers names, read again, and see if you are any the wiser.

Yes, the differences in content are clear, as are the similarities in terms of both composers’ uncompromising approach, the romantic nature of their characters ad nauseam. These arguments can be posited and refuted to equal degree, but I hate to get onto a pundit merrygoround and into argments which are ultimately founded in a subjective response to the music, and therefore so personal as to be irrelevant as general comment.

Context is however a vital aspect of musical presentation, and the strange thing is that, rather than uniting two Teutonic titans in this programme, the comparisons have more the effect of cancelling each other out. Stockhausen’s fiendishly tricky scores are, from the examples I have managed to run through with the sheet music in front of me, played with remarkable accuracy by Pi-hsien Chen, and are therefore highly recommendable. These striking atonal statements have the tendency to gang together however, making Beethoven sound rather more like a sweet musical box than he deserves. Pi-hsien Chen does have a more twinkly sound than, say, Igor Levit in Op. 101, and in comparing them both in the final Allegro you can hear how Chen puts more air between the notes, making for lighter-sounding Beethoven than some. I by no means dislike her playing, and am grateful that she doesn’t move towards ‘modernising’ Beethoven to shoehorn him more into context with the 1950s avant-garde. There is however more theatrical drama to be extracted from these sonatas, and if there was ever a composer to court theatrical drama then this was Karlheinz Stockhausen. Beethoven’s final piano sonata Op. 111 is more innately dramatic of course, and Chen puts good weight into the operatic moods of the first movement, though not with quite the laser-like clarity which makes Levit’s performance one of the best I’ve heard. Again, there is a great deal to admire in Chen’s version, and timings are pretty similar between the two. The Arietta is deep and involving, and there is no questioning the intense commitment in this performance. Returning to the cold intellectual bath of Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke in turn revives unkind and, in this case undeserving thoughts of artistic fakery and the avant-garde cul-de-sac. As Fox points out, Stockhausen was a young ‘rising star’ when these first six Klavierstücke were written, but they occupy regions of communication which, to my ears, barely coincide with those of the elderly Beethoven’s inner journeys, and so we are left with a rather icky cold bath fulled with both oil and water.

Recordings of Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke tend to be such an undertaking that you wouldn’t really expect to find much in the way of duds. I’ve had a listen to Herbert Henck who is tremendous on the Wergo label, though the piano sound is quite distant. Elisabeth Klein has one or two of the Klavierstücke on her Classico label selection, and while also very good, tends to be more elegiac – Stockhausen a la francaise perhaps. David Tudor on the Hat Hut label has to be the default choice for the complete set, if you can find a copy. Pi-hsien Chen is stunningly dynamic and physical with these pieces, and with a close piano sound you can hear every nuance, including a mild ‘chuffing’ from the felt in the dampers.

I’m all for experimental programming and unusual proximity of genres, but I’m not sure it works in this case. As Christopher Fox writes, “we have to hear each composer whole” – another contradiction to the present melting pot. If you think your ideas about music need turning on their head then this is certainly an interesting place to visit, but not necessarily because of the ‘Stockhoven-Beethausen’ sandwich it offers.

Dominy Clements


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