Stockhausen: Mantra | Schoenberg: String Quartets 3 and 4

Pestova Meyer Piano Duo; Jan Panis (Naxos 8.572398) | Fred Sherry Quartet (Naxos 8.557533)

13 November 2010 4 stars3 stars

MantraTwo recent releases on Naxos provide new recordings of key avant-garde works of the twentieth century.

Stockhausen's Mantra was composed in 1970. It was the first piece to be based on the German composer's formula technique, which subsequently went on to inform all of his later compositional output, most expansively in the Licht opera cycle. This strictly-conceived approach to composition arose after a freer period during the sixties when Stockhausen experimented with open forms, such as the 'intuitive music' of the Stockhausen Group, a touring band who performed works by the composer the scores of which were sometimes limited to a short written text or a structural outline. With Mantra, presumably having grown tired of such liberties, Stockhausen returned to a controlled approach.

Mantra is scored for two pianists, calling for a third person as sound projectionist. Throughout, the pianos are subjected to electronic processing in the form of ring modulation, the pianists now and again also striking crotales and woodblocks to enliven the musical texture and create fissures in the piano discourse. The impression in performance is theatrical, the audience witnessing a duel between the pianists. The effect given to the sound by the ring modulation ranges from robotic to luscious, the music sometimes sounding as if heard from the bottom of the ocean, sometimes as if from inside a metal bowl.

The formula technique here works as follows. At the opening there is a bald statement of a thirteen note series, each note of which is assigned a dynamic and a characteristic musical quality (for example, 'regular repetition', 'accent at the end', and so on). The work that follows is made up of a sequence of thirteen statements of this series, over the course of which the series progressively grows longer and more elaborate, and each of which statements explore one of the different musical qualities. The large-scale form of the work in the end corresponds to the small-scale thirteen-part schema.

You don't need to follow these technical niceties, though, to enjoy the piece. Whatever cynicism you might have as to such theoretical pretensions, this work is undoubtedly thrilling. Though Mantra is decisively of its time, the lineage it shares with the Austro-Germanic tradition of piano theme and variations, the venerable examples of Bach and Beethoven shining forth, is never far away.

This recording is the first to use digital technology in the rendering of the electronics, the old analogue equipment having since the work's inception become obsolete, and it features equipment specifically designed by Stockhausen's former assistant Jan Panis. The Pestova Meyer Piano Duo have been touring this piece over the past few years (they gave a memorable account in Cork a couple of years ago), and here, with a vivid and deep performance, they propel the work into the twenty-first century. At this price the CD is a steal.

Schoenberg published four string quartets in his lifetime. Of these the most famous is the second, whose third movement, injecting the voice of a soprano into the quartet's intimacy of discourse, ushered in the atonal era in European composition. Under the supervision of Robert Craft, Naxos has now brought the third and fourth quartets together on one disc as part of their complete Schoenberg edition. They are performed on this disc masterfully and with exquisite urgency by the Fred Sherry String Quartet.

The String Quartet No. 3, Op. 30, composed in 1927, follows a classical architecture, and each of its movements corresponds to a recognisable classical form. In some ways its mood is reminiscent of Schoenberg's expressionistic works from earlier in the century a late-classical quartet warped and bent out of shape. The String Quartet No. 4, Op. 37 again uses classical forms but is less spiky than the third. Both quartets have much to offer the dedicated listener, though (I hazard to say) less for the casual listener than, say, Bartok's quartets, which are less severe and more occassionaly playful.

It is interesting that in speaking of the inspiration behind one of his works, Schoenberg gave the following account: 'Unnameable mental image of sound and moving space, of a form with characteristic relationships; of moving masses whose shape is unnameable and not amenable to comparison.' This is an account we might do well to pay attention to, especially the last point whose shape is unnameable and not amenable to comparison.

A consistent drag on the reception of Schoenberg's music has been its falling victim to a mode of academic musical analysis favouring quantification, calculation and over-identification of elements over a more sensible, holistic or thoughtful approach. We have musicological journals full of articles reducing Schoenberg's music to pseudo-geometric diagrams and lists of pitch class sets littered like wheals on a musical corpse, of no interest to anyone except those inclined to write them in the first place, and certainly saying little of interest about the music.

Following the advice of the 'master' the music may be heard with more openness. In some sense these quartets come across like music that, though at the moment trapped hopelessly in our time, a time of comparisons and graphs, may in the future hope to be freed from the web in which it's ensnared.

By Liam Cagney