German Connections

Kammerkonzert 05 [UK premiere]
Five Star Signs – Virgo; Libra; Scorpio; Sagittarius; Capricorn [UK premiere]
Kammersymphonie [UK premiere]

London Sinfonietta
Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 6 December, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

“German Connections” was the heading for this London Sinfonietta concert in which three composers of the older generation – Hans Werner Henze (born 1926), Karlheinz Stockhausen (born 1928) and Mauricio Kagel (born 1931) revisited pieces from varying points in their creative past.

Such revisiting has been a significant (though worthwhile) aspect of Henze’s composing over the last decade, and his Kammerkonzert 05 – commissioned by Bavarian State Opera to mark his 80th-birthday earlier this year – is itself a second revision of the First Symphony written at the outset of his career in 1947.

On reworking the piece in 1963 – in the process reducing its four movements to three and making lighter the instrumentation – Henze commented that he had aimed to capture what he had sought to achieve in the first instance, and this latest revision, for an ensemble of 15 musicians, takes the process further. The Stravinskian outer movements now have an even greater harmonic astringency and also rhythmic verve, and the central Notturno – with its appealingly Holstian ambience – a correspondingly greater melodic intimacy. Oliver Knussen gave a fine performance of the 1963 revision of the Symphony with the Sinfonietta at the Proms some years ago, and his account of this (presumably final) version was no less attentive to the composer’s skilful and also affectionate revisiting of his much younger self.

Where Henze reduces, so Stockhausen enriches – his Five Star Signs being a reworking of pieces from the Tierkreis (Zodiac) cycle that emerged in 1974 and itself formed part of a larger work Musik Im Bauch. What was initially written for musical boxes – each with its own star ‘tune’ – and percussion has been through several chamber transformation in the interim, and the present selection retains all of the whimsicality that gives Tierkreis a durability not shared by Stockhausen’s grander conceptionsfrom the early 1970s. Poised between an unfolding rigour in its logic yet capricious in its incident, each of these five pieces has a wistful quality not necessarily associated with the composer (indeed, Charles Koechlin comes readily to mind), but which lingers long in the memory – and not just because of Knussen’s laudable second performance of the 11-minute work. Hopefully the other seven pieces will follow in due course.

Mauricio Kagel (who was born in Buenos Aires and who settled in Cologne in 1957) is a composer for whom past and present are bound within a temporal continuity, and Kammersymphonie is highly typical of the subtle subversion at work in his ‘concert’ music of the last quarter-century (notably the two Piano Trios, Third and Fourth String Quartets, and the orchestral Etudes).

What began life as a counterpart to “1898”, an al fresco commemoration of the 75th-anniversary of record company Deutsche Grammophon in 1973, had become – by 1996 – a precisely notated two-movement work for diverse ensemble that allies itself decisively with Kagel’s maturity. While salient motifs are detectable at the outset of the first movement Andante, and are developed over this and the ensuing Moderato, the work is defined by a speculative evolution that implies a ‘scenario’ in sound. Intriguing and disarming by turns, it again suggests that, for all the undoubted cultural significance of his film and theatre work, it may yet be Kagel’s abstract compositions that define the essence of this essentially non-abstract composer.

Superbly played by the Sinfonietta under Knussen’s assured guidance, the 40-minute Kammersymphonie concluded an absorbing concert which – with or without the repeat of the Stockhausen work – would make an ideal addition to the Sinfonietta’s own label, now hopefully set to issue further releases on a regular basis.

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