Proms 20 and 21: Stockhausen Day

BBC Symphony Orchestra; Theatre of Voices; Pasveer, Wolf, Blaauw, Currie, Robertson, Brabbins

Royal Albert Hall, 5 August 20084 stars

StockhausenThe timing could not have been better. Less than eight months after Karlheinz Stockhausen's  death, this day of celebration of the composer's life and work was a much-awaited effort in marking the moment of Stockhausen's music finally bursting out of the bubble that the composer had created around himself for decades by secluding himself and his close collaborators in the German village of Kurten.

The performances involved some of Stockhausen's long-time collaborators from the Kurten group, such as the excellent Bryan Wolf, who's been Stockhausen's own sound engineer for more than twenty years, and Kathinka Pasveer, the flautist and performer extraordinaire with whom the composer shared an extraordinary symbiosis of artistic intents for 25 years, as well as the more recently discovered but equally outstanding trumpeter Marco Blaauw.  

The first concert's remarkable programme made a point of highlighting the works marking the outer boundaries of Stockhausen's fifty-year-long career.  Framed by two performances of Gruppen, the work that brought the twenty-nine-year-old composer to international attention in 1957, and centered by a mind-blowing performance of Kontakte (1958-1960) the programme also included premières of two sections of Stockhausen's last, unfinished project, Klang – a sister project to Licht, consisting of large cycle of twenty-four pieces each marking one hour of the day.

The decision to perform Gruppen twice is itself indicative of the intelligent and sensitive thinking that went into this concert. Concert halls are only just starting to discover the potent effect of a repeated performance within a single concert, especially where contemporary art music, or any music that is aurally challenging, is involved. Gruppen provides the listener with a spectacular introduction to issues that stayed in Stockhausen's mind until the end: multi-directional, travelling sound, and the poetry of highly complex structures. Yet the work also provided the perfect close to a programme that chose to celebrate the constant elements in Stockhausen's output, rather than the more often dealt-with changes. Both performances were excellent in themselves – the second, as often happens, exceeding the first one in accuracy, without however the usual loss in overall synergy. Yet the three orchestras (each with its own able conductor), placed in a horseshoe shape around the standing audience, could have done with a broader spacing that allowed the sitting audience to enjoy the surround sound - the central orchestra, placed at the back of the hall by the organ, sounded much more distant than its lateral counterparts. Yet these details can hardly detract from the sapiently managed silences in between the buzzing swarms of sound – which in a work as dense and yet as closely subdivided as Gruppen can be the making or the breaking of a performance. The famous travelling brass chords (ten seconds of music that are emulated by young composers to this day) were luminous and utterly arresting, both times.

The UK première of Cosmic Pulses followed. This is the thirteenth movement of Klang and Stockhausen's last work for electronics, as well the most structurally ambitious. The structure plays with the number twenty-four and combines groups of twenty-four layers of pitch, tempo and, most importantly, sound projection – structural complexity and mobile sound projection featuring again, fifty years on. The performance closely followed Stockhausen's own directions for the concert reproduction of electronic music: the hall was darkened while a small spotlight was projected onto the stage curtain - a little moon, as Stockhausen himself called it, for those afraid of dark spaces. Cosmic Pulses gave the overall impression of a slowly growing, infinitely articulate swarm of sound. If the process operated through the piece started to be predictable halfway through the piece, it was nonetheless aurally exciting. Yet one can't help but think that despite the exceptional mastery involved in the sound projection (Bryan Wolf, Kathinka Pasveer), the extensive use of synthesizer sounds is somewhat regrettable. The setback of these sounds is the fact that they are as easily identifiable as they are dated – creating associations with earlier works, such as Oktophonie, which one may struggle to find contemporary today.

The third item in the programme was the fifth hour from Klang, and a world premiere: Harmonien for solo trumpet. There has been debate over the more traditional flavour of  Stockhausen's  chamber and solo compositions. These works are often made up of simple, recognizable material treated in a comparatively more transparent way than the works for larger ensembles or electronics.  Yet one has only to be acquainted with the gem that is Im Freundschaft for solo clarinet (1977) - a masterpiece in pacing and melodic fluidity - to forget all about stylistic quibbles. Harmonien is no different: a falling major third, an ascending perfect fourth, another falling minor third, and we're off. The work almost reminds one of Varèse in the sparseness of melodic material involved and the mournful yet obsessive returning to the same intervals interspersed with delicate trills, ostinati and flourishes. Marco Blaauw delivered a moving performance and shone particularly in his switching from open to muted trumpet – which throughout the performance created a breath-taking effect of both distance and eerie, whispering intimacy without taking away from the pacing of the performance.

StockhausenThe second half of the concert opened with a truly exceptional performance of Kontakte. Having witnessed this work performed twice before, it was stunning to feel as though I was hearing it for the first time. Curiously, one tends to think of Kontakte as an extremely subtle piece in its transformation of acoustic sounds into electronic sounds – and yet the power of resonance in this concert was all but subtle, in the best of ways. Incidentally, the electronics of this piece were produced before the time of synthesizers, and sounded all the more fresh and biting for it, creating transitions between rhythm and pitch, acoustic and electronic sound, that are as awe-inspiring today as they were in 1960. The performers played with the consummate boldness that marks true musicianship – one just couldn't resist the percussive flair of Nicolas Hodges at the piano. The visual effect of seeing as well as hearing the sounds bouncing back and forth from the stage musicians to the speakers and the tape was one of the most exciting experiences of London's concert life this year.

The late night concert was a well suited environment for the performance of one of the most talked about items in Stockhausen's whole output. One likes to think of Stimmung's sound arising just at the time when the world's hustle dies down, which made the late night performance a clever, sensitive choice.  Stimmung is a wacky piece; its detractors will chuckle both at the composer's instructions for the performance (a rug in earth colours, a round table with a glass sphere in the middle around which the six vocalists are to gather) and at the rather explicit erotic poetry set – penned by the composer himself. Many frown at the extensive duration (seventy minutes) counterbalanced by the absolute lack of harmonic movement (a single B flat ninth chord is to sustain the listener throughout the performance).

Yet the opening moments, with the purity of the a cappella sound ascending into an astonishing interplay of overtones — which the amplification so expertly brought out — should never fail to silence the sourest of critics. The Swedish a cappella group Theatre of Voices, and their director Paul Hillier, seemed to latch on an element that alone can make the performance of a piece whose context is somehow alien to us today: a little humour. The important realization that preserving the façade of the divinely inspired 'art' music performer at all times is deleterious to the preservation of music that is worthy, but different. Throughout the performance, what was striking was the chemistry these performers had with one another, the innocent enjoyment they found in playing this game of alternate leadership and improvised response that characterizes the piece's unfolding – the highlight being the moment in which they highlighted a moment of simultaneous six-part singing by intoning the word 'barbershop'. While I am not a fan of Stimmung as such, I realised in this single moment that Stimmung is a work that plays around with our notions of what it is to listen, to sing, to compose – and it is only fair, and healthy, that we should play with it in return.

By Delia Casadei

Different point of view? Visit our Facebook group or blog and have your say.