Klang – A Tribute to Karlheinz Stockhausen … Gesang der Jünglinge … Luzifers-Tanz

Gesang der Jünglinge
Samstag aus LICHT – 3rd scene: Luzifers-Tanz [London premiere]

Nicholas Isherwood (bass)
Karin de Fleyt (piccolo)
Marco Blaauw (trumpet)
Bryan Wolf (sound projection)
Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra
Clark Rundell

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 9 November, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007)This final concert in “Klang”, Southbank Centre’s nine-day Stockhausen retrospective, was not untypical in its pairing a classic from the composer’s earlier years with one from the grandiose project which came to dominate all but the final four years in the second half of his creative career.

Gesang der Jünglinge (1956) is among a handful of his works whose future status is guaranteed, the piece sounded newly minted in this latest re-mastering, with the placement of loudspeakers making the most of the Royal Festival Hall’s spatial potential without diluting the music’s sonic potency. Whether approached in the spirit of an “electronic Mass” (as the composer intended and as would have been underlined had it been premiered in Cologne Cathedral as envisaged) or as the opening-out of the then ‘young’ electronic medium onto a new plane of textural complexity and finesse, its capacity to astound and to move has not diminished over time. One can only wonder how the not-realised (and potentially much the longest) seventh section might have capped the preceding, but the piece feels so complete in itself as to make it probable that Stockhausen knew, with hindsight, that less was indeed more.

At any rate, the feeling that he packed more incident into its 13 minutes than into many of his later evening-length works came to mind more than once during the performance of ‘Luzifers-Tanz’ (1983) that followed immediately after. This forms the third scene from “Samstag aus LICHT” – itself the second instalment (in order of completion) of Stockhausen’s seven-day opera cycle. A work that is pervaded by the character of Lucifer and who, indeed, determines the course of this scene: its ten dances (being taken by a section of the wind orchestra then combined with dances previously heard) each representing an aspect of a human face, before interruption first by a percussion cadenza and then the entrance of Michael – whose elaborate solo for piccolo trumpet provokes Lucifer into having him ejected and celebrating his triumph with a lengthy piccolo solo then a concluding orgiastic tutti.

A concert performance can only approximate to what would be seen in a production, but that heard here went a long way to recreating the ‘feel’ of this scene with its serried ranks of woodwind and brass (descending by rows as they ascend by register), separated at the centre by two sets of percussion with four other percussionists at the relative corners, whose movement ‘in sequence’ as they played bore more than a passing resemblance to the human face. Lucifer, stylishly suited and booted, was the epitome of the malevolent ‘lounge lizard’, while the appearances of Michael and the dancer were in accord with their stage representation. A pity that the musicians’ strike, which Stockhausen wrote into the music following disruption to the premiere performances of ‘Donnerstag’ three years earlier at La Scala, rather failed to materialise, but perhaps that needed the composer’s presence to make its full effect.

The performance left little to chance. Nicholas Isherwood is best known here in Baroque repertoire, and his rich-toned ‘basso profundo’ is ideal for this most saturnine of hosts – entrancing his audience as he plies his evil magic. Michael’s contribution was stunningly well realised by Marco Blaauw – whose trumpet-playing arguably surpasses that of Markus Stockhausen, for whom the music was originally conceived – while Karin de Fleyt’s agile work on piccolo was no less assured. Clark Rundell secured a powerful but never unsubtle response from the massed forces of the RNCM Wind Orchestra – the whole enhanced by Bryan Wolf’s sound projection.

Like so much of LICHT, whether whole operas or scenic components, ‘Luzifers-Tanz’ is diverting to watch and arresting to listen to: entertaining in the most meaningful sense. Whether that translates into music that is profound or, in the most human sense, provocative is another matter. Like that of Scriabin and others before him who adhered to the mystical in art, Stockhausen’s creative ambition is not in doubt; but in realisation leads to an outcome which is perhaps not what its creator foresaw.

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