Klang – A Tribute to Karlheinz Stockhausen … Harmonies & Trans

KLANG – 5th hour: Harmonien (bass clarinet) [UK premiere]
KLANG – 5th hour: Harmonien (flute) [UK premiere]

London Sinfonietta
Oliver Knussen [Michaels-Gruss]

Suzanne Stephens (bass clarinet)

Kathinka Pasveer (flute)

Royal College of Music Orchestra
Diego Masson [Trans]

Michael Olivia (sound projection – Trans)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 1 November, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007). Photograph: Erich Auerbach/GettyThe first concert in the Southbank Centre’s “tribute to Karlheinz Stockhausen”, which runs until 9 November and embraces concerts as well as “seminars, discussions, workshops and more”, begun with a foyer performance (the composer’s intended location) of the 12-minute Michaels-Gruss (Michael’s Greeting), the ‘prelude’ to ‘Donnerstag’ (Thursday) from “LICHT”. Oliver Knussen conducted the London Sinfonietta brass, percussion and piano in music sonorous, lyrical and ingenious in which silence, vitality and intense expression compellingly combine, and with even a jazz riff to conclude!

“Klang” (the festival) was prepared with Stockhausen’s input, the intention being that he would be present, but his death in December last year at the age of 79 has now made “Klang” a homage to him. The series programme-book includes articles by Knussen, Tom Service and Björk as well as detailed notes on the pieces being performed. Knussen writes that Stockhausen’s “ear was phenomenal”. This is very evident in Trans, which was played twice, although there is no requirement by the composer to do so.

Trans (1971), for orchestra and tape, is a work of visual and aural drama lasting close on 30 minutes. Only the strings are visible and are bathed in bright red light and made surreal by sitting behind a gauze curtain, the winds, brass and percussion being invisible behind a scrim. Although visually Trans is compelling, it is the musical component that is so revealing of Stockhausen’s very detailed yet consummate use of the orchestra, especially rich here in colour, timbre and closely-woven counterpoint.

Punctuating the music is the disturbing (pre-recorded) sound of a shuttle loom, which seems to confine as automatons the string-players who (a few moments of individual mania aside) have a sustaining monophonic role (possibly inspired by Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question – suggested a colleague – and there is also a trumpet solo played from on-high). The rest of the orchestra is altogether busier, seriously complex and very gratifying in what seemed remarkably well prepared performances by students from the Royal College of Music under Diego Masson. If the theatrical elements of Trans may not have been as eye-catching second time around, the musical ones remained just as intriguing.

The solo instrumental pieces share (essentially) the same musical material to form the 5th Hour of “KLANG: The Twenty-four Hours of the Day”. At this opening concert we heard the UK premieres of the versions for bass clarinet and for flute (there is a third, for trumpet, which was performed at this year’s BBC Proms). Both pieces involve a visual element; yet, once more, the musical line – lyrical and characterful – held the attention, the flute version being particularly entrancing. Stockhausen veterans, Suzanne Stephens and Kathinka Pasveer, played not only with dedication but also with an insight that brought these soliloquies to expressive life.

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