Prom 11: Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge and Welt-Parlament [Ex Cathedra/Jeffrey Skidmore with Kathinka Pasveer]

Gesang der Jünglinge
Mittwoch aus ‘Licht’ – Welt-Parlament [London premiere]

Ex Cathedra
Jeffrey Skidmore

Kathinka Pasveer – Sound projection

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 19 July, 2013
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Ex Cathedra perform music by Stockhausen in this evening’s Late Night Prom 11. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThe first complete staging of Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus ‘Licht’, in Birmingham as part of the Cultural Olympiad last year (review link below), put paid to any thought that this most ambitious of the composer’s seven operas for each day of the week might not have been realisable. A further performance at this year’s Proms was perhaps too much to hope for (though it would hardly have been out of context within a season that features seven Wagner operas, including a complete Ring cycle), so credit to Birmingham-based Ex Cathedra and its redoubtable conductor Jeffrey Skidmore for having brought ‘Welt-Parlament’ (1995) – first scene from Mittwoch – to these concerts.

With its highly theatrical arrival and departure of voices (recalling the ‘Europa’ version of Momente – minus lanterns), ‘Welt-Parlament’ sets the tone for what follows: situated in the World Parliament at the top of a skyscraper, the 12-part chorus, seated left and right of the President, debates the concept of love via an invented language and in music ranging from disparate waves of sound to drone-like textures of modal cast. Changes of pitch are denoted with strokes on tubular bells by the President, whose hurried exit to move his illegally-parked car – a typically abstruse instance of Stockhausen humour – sees him replaced by a soprano whose lively address brings the session’s adjournment and the end of the scene.

Ex Cathedra perform music by Stockhausen in this evening’s Late Night Prom 11. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouIn its unabashed combining of the rarefied and the mundane, ‘Welt-Parlament’ is very much on a par with Stockhausen’s thinking throughout the Licht cycle. Musically its content can be traced directly to his explorations of vocal timbre from three decades before, though now with a deftness and insouciance to suggest that the listening experience should be as much pleasurable as challenging. Such at least was how Ex Cathedra projected it – with Ben Thappa at once imposing and amusing as the hapless President, and Elizabeth Drury enchanting in her Papagena-like rap. Situated just below the President, Jeffrey Skidmore ensured even the most anarchic-sounding passages were rendered with precision and poise.

An additional enhancement was the sound projection of Kathinka Pasveer, whose association with the composer makes her the ideal person to take over coordination of his work in a live context. Seldom has the Royal Albert Hall acoustic yielded such clarity in spatial terms, which was no less true in Gesang der Jünglinge (1956) – its pioneering interplay of vocal and electronic sounds spellbinding now the original tape has been restored, allowing the vast range of textures and dynamics to emerge untarnished. For once, moreover, a late-night Prom finished early: perhaps a further choral or electronic piece might have been included? Then again, this juxtaposition of Stockhausen decades apart could hardly have been bettered.

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