Total Immersion … Stockhausen … Chamber and Choral Music
Written by Andrew Maisel
The first concert of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s day-long celebration of the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen concentrated on chamber and choral works, mostly culled from the early part of his career, the extraordinary “Litanei 97” being the one exception.
These early works serve two purposes. They remind us what a startling impact Stockhausen had on the music-world in the early 1950s when he literally changed the way music was conceived, listened to and appreciated, and how far reaching his influence would be; and they are an interesting pointer and contrast to the larger, more ambitious works from Gruppen onwards.
From later, the wind quintet, Adieu (1966) was a departure for Stockhausen at a time when he was concentrating on electronic pieces. It was commissioned as a memorial to an oboist who had worked with him and who had died in a car crash. Adieu, from its title and subject matter, is a subdued work, long sustained notes interrupted by abrupt passages of ensemble-playing before the instruments take off in their own direction. This sequence of passages where players are allowed a certain amount of freedom before briefly coming together comes around slowly, then quickly, at times the music grinding to a halt. Played softly throughout, the effect is of reflection and meditation. Under the direction of Richard Baker, the members of Guildhall New Music Ensemble showed commendable discipline in music demanding the utmost level of concentration.
They returned at the end of the first half to give Kontra-Punkte, the work from 1952 for ten instruments that is widely credited with having made Stockhausen’s reputation. Here the composer expanded on his technique of composing. As Paul Griffiths explained in his programme notes, this music “gradually gives way to a flow of groups – of groups in counterpoint with “points” or with other groups”. In Kontra-Punkte, wind, brass, strings, harp and piano combine at the outset, go their separate ways and eventually, one-by-one, drop out. The music reduces to pianissimo, the keyboard the only instrument left at the end; again a disciplined performance with an outstanding contribution from pianist Richard Uttley.
Nicolas Hodges played brilliantly Several Klavierstücke. Here we could hear Stockhausen experimenting with sound, consciously pushing the boundaries of what is achievable on the piano, the textures of notes being openly examined, played in sequence, then individually, and held until the decay drifts into silence. Out of this seeming randomness arrives a sense of order and of meaning so that each gesture and each note seems to make perfect sense.
There were two a cappella works from 1950. “Choral” from 1950 finds Stockhausen experimenting with the 12-note technique to his own text, one with overt Christian overtones reflecting the composer’s Catholic faith. “Chöre für Doris”, dedicated to Stockhausen’s future wife, sets three poems by Verlaine. Both pieces find Stockhausen at his most accessible. The BBC Singers were on superb form in well-rehearsed performances that made light of the works’ complex use of harmony.
Nicolas Hodges returned for Klavierstück IX, composed in 1955 but held back until 1961. This ten-minute work is something of a shock after the earlier such pieces, Stockhausen pushing his experiments further still, but the music is now much more severe and complex, one passage of abrupt chords quite shattering in its intensity.
“Litanei 97” – from that year – is in the form of a ritual, lasting some 25 minutes. Reworked from a piece originally commissioned in 1968, “Litanei 97” owes much to the opera-cycle “Licht” in its use of “Intuitive Music” and its extravagant visual input.
Dressed in flowing blue robes, druid-style, the BBC Singers stood in a circle whilst David Hill, similarly attired, conducted the ceremony from within their midst, singing the introduction to each verse and striking a variety of Japanese gongs. After each verse the singers would take a step to the right, halfway through the piece a step to the left, eventually turning 180 degrees to face the audience. There was also some foot-stamping and jumping. The ‘singing’ is set to the composer’s text, explaining his way of communicating his music, how vibrations flow through him to the listener, how he functions like a radio, transmitting these sounds, these currents. If you can imagine how the human voice would try to reproduce the sound of a short-wave radio being tuned, then you have some idea of what “Litanei 97” sounds like.
Words are twisted, elongated, hissed and distorted (the BBC Singers quite brilliant) creating an effect that is startling and arresting – and for much of the time quite hilarious! Some members of the audience were giggling while others were stony-faced. At the end, the Singers distributed the score or “formula”. Some have pointed to “Litanei 97” as evidence of Stockhausen’s megalomania in his later years; others see it as work which was very much of its time. Judging by this audience’s reaction, it still polarises opinion.
”Highlights” of this concert to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 24 January from 10.30 p.m. in Hear and Now