Opera and Classical Reviews

Proms 20 & 21: Stockhausen Day @ Royal Albert Hall, London

2 August 2008

A full day of Stockhausen concerts, including a world premiere, was a hit and miss affair. But where there were hits, there were bulls-eyes. Even if you were born on another planet (as Stockhausen often claimed to be) taking consistent musical risks can’t always pay off, but for the discoveries along the way it was more than worth it. The works in this six-hour session (covering two Proms concerts) were Gruppen, Cosmic Pulses, Harmonien, Kontakte, Gruppen (again!) and Stimmung.

Gruppen was written for three separate orchestras and three conductors in 1957 when Stockhausen was only 29. The decision to have distinct groups was apparently made to solve the problem of having many consecutive speeds of music at once, not for the spatial/sonic advantages it allows. The final work, however, makes full use of the disparate clusters, with sound swirling around the hall in sharp relief and soft focus, the furthest orchestra sounding like words spoken in brackets. Apart from anything else, this piece contains some of Stockhausen’s most incredible music, completely private and personal – delicate, pointillist ideas constantly blossoming and evaporating. Stockhausen makes the three orchestras operate individually, together or sometimes broken into intricate chamber groups. Particularly beautiful moments were a cello and double bass pizzicato duet (played within one orchestra) and a funny trumpet trio ping-ponging between all three orchestras.

The next piece was the UK premiere of Cosmic Pulses, 32 minutes of pure electronic music. This was from the cycle of Klang which Stockhausen was working on at the time of his death. The lights were all turned off and the music bellowed out from speakers positioned around the top of the hall. A huge swarm of what sounded like giant electronic church bells, chiming very low, multiplying and rushing frantically between eight speakers. In all honesty it outstayed its welcome, but did have its moments.

Next was another slight dud. The world premiere of Harmonien for solo trumpet. This was also a work from Klang, described in some detail in the programme notes, making it sound very interesting and rich, but in performance it seemed conservative, almost a throwaway piece by Stockhausen’s standards – simple, tonal and repetitive. There were (oddly enough) some catchy tunes but no aspect of the performance stunned me.

After the interval we had some classic Stockhausen: Kontakte from 1960. This is a monumental, defining masterpiece of electronic music. Produced before the invention of synthesizers or digital computers, Stockhausen had to make do with very crude radio testing equipment to create a wilderness of alien sounds. For this concert the version for pre-recorded electronics plus live percussion and piano was used, in keeping with the “spatial” theme of the evening. Pairing pre-recorded material with live performers has the unexpected effect of diluting your concentration. As you drift from focusing on the unbelievable electronic sounds to watching the virtuoso performances on stage it is hard to accept it as a unified experience. Regardless of that, this was an immensely enjoyable performance, smiles beaming all around the hall during everyone’s favourite bit: the enormous, worming tone that descends into the inky depths only to break up and scatter itself higher and higher into the stratosphere. What a joy!

Then came another performance of Gruppen. Still wonderful, but this time I picked up on more details and there was twice as much volume in the brass.

The second prom only contained one work, the colossal vocal piece (70 minutes) Stimmung written in 1968. This piece divides even Stockhausen fans. Is it a massive, flapping hippy-commune chant, or a profound message from an alien civilisation? The only way I could deal with it was with a fistful of salt. It’s nonsense, but completely original nonsense. Imagine six vocalists sat around a table cross-legged singing “wowoWOWOwowow” füüüüüüüüüülennnnn” and “Zipp Zipp” for over an hour. It’s all done in a totally deadpan way, but when all six singers shout “BARBERSHOP” you know Stockhausen was a seriously funny man.

GRUPPEN: Conductors -David Robertson, Martin Brabbins and Pascal Rophé with the BBC Symphony Orchestra

HARMONIEM: Trumpet – Marco Blaauw

KONTAKTE: Piano and percussion – Nicolas Hodges. Percussion – Colin Currie

STIMMUNG: Theatre of Voices. Director – Paul Hillier

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