04 Jun 2019

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Cosmic traveling through his Klavierstücke, Kontakte and Stimmung

Stockhausen. Cosmic Prophet. Two sequential concerts. Music written for piano, percussion, sound diffusion and the voice. We are in the mysterious labyrinth of one of the defining composers of the last century. That at least ninety-minutes of one of these concerts proved to be an event of such magnitude is as much down to the astonishing music Stockhausen composed as it is to the peerless brilliance of the pianist who took us on the journey through the Klavierstücke. Put another way, in more than thirty years of hearing some of the greatest artists for this instrument - Pollini, Sokolov, Zimerman, Richter - this was a feat that has almost no parallels.

What was so beautifully crafted about these two concerts was the indisputable linear logic to them. To those who find Stockhausen enigmatic and random - and there is much of this in his music that is both - there was ample evidence here of a composer (and performer) working in a progressive way. Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s programming of the Klavierstücke I-XI was not numerical but was crafted to internalise - and externalise - what would come afterwards. Klavierstück X, which came just before the interval of the first concert, is a piece that stands in relation to both Kontakte and Stimmung, works which would follow it in these concerts. The hammering clusters of Klavierstück X will take on a new form in Kontakte just as the sonorities of the piano and its decaying voices will foreshadow the new-world that Stockhausen created for Stimmung. But if Stockhausen is about anything he is about geometry - and where Aimard began his journey through the Klavierstücke, in the humming, vocal patterns of the early pieces, to its conclusion in X, and especially XI, with its polyvalent structure and unpredictable randomness, London Voices were to end their performance of Stimmung almost four hours later in a similar state of unpredictability.

Stockhausen described his Klavierstücke as “drawings”. When I reviewed David Tudor’s landmark recordings of these pieces last year, I interpreted this description by Stockhausen as ‘evolutionary’ - in part because drawings by their very nature can be fragmentary and incomplete. It was certainly the case some of these pieces went through substantial revision (VI went through such change that Tudor’s recording of it is the 1955 version and not the one which we hear today from 1960/61). But just as evolutionary is the kind of playing we hear in this music. Early pioneers of the Klavierstücke, from Tudor himself, to Aloys Kontarsky (who premiered XI) and Frederic Rzewski (who premiered X) brought enormous discipline and virtuosity to the keyboard but pianists today - and most notably Aimard - approach these pieces in a much broader musical context. Try as you might to hear inflections of Brahms, Bach, Ravel or Messiaen in performances of the Klavierstücke from the late 1950s and early 1960s you just won’t latch on to it. Aimard, on the other hand, simply fleshes out colour in these works - these are no longer drawings, but full-scale canvases lavished with detail, brush strokes taken to every fine line of what Stockhausen originally drew until what we end up with is a complete masterwork.

Perhaps Aimard was teasing us a little by starting with III. It was the Klavierstück which was composed first in the cycle - but it also happens to be the shortest work Stockhausen ever wrote, at just over 30 seconds long. I-IV form a kind of sonata and Aimard’s approach was to take it this way - but what magnificent brutalism he fired this music with, as if stripping away the piano keys like bark from a tree. Often the instrument felt synthesised, forward-looking, Aimard entirely at one with treating these early pieces as experimental art. Those inner voices were often heavenly articulated - in IV, for example, Aimard would stretch the concept that hands playing at different pressures could project the idea of opera in action.

If the progression of this first half meant you often got more splintered, resonant blasts of destruction, the latter part was built on sculpture. Think more of Giacometti’s Femme égorgée, which brutalises and distorts, and is like a torn open crustacean - or, the fragmentary semi-allusions of Bruno Catalano which suggest something both visible and invisible - or, in the case of these later Stockhausen Klavierstücke works defined as much for their sound as they are for their silence. The oscillating tempos of VI, and how the work collapses into sections of vast swells of sound and silence, can make it treacherous for both pianist and audience. But like Stimmung, it’s a work which is best seen as a vast paradise of meditation. Aimard was superb at using the pedals to give the piano a decaying echo - but what was most striking was the Gallic colour which he brought to his playing. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a performance of VI which conjured up so much halo-like luminosity beside the bleakness of the clusters.

Klavierstücke IX-XI, which ended the first part of this programme, are simply extraordinary works. The opening of IX is unforgettable - music of such inexorable power it obliterates everything that has come before it. If there was a palpable sense of struggle to Aimard’s playing through that first section, where a chord is played 139 times in a gradual decrescendo (and then played again another 87 times with the same dynamic decrescendo) it felt entirely intentional. And randomness is entirely intentional in XI, a piece that will never be the same in any two performances. Labyrinthine, unpredictable, perhaps closer to some of the piano writing of John Cage like 4’33 or Morton Feldman’s Intermission 6, it rather defies description in performance because it has no comparison. Lengths of it vary - simply because where you start and where you end depends on how long it takes to play each fragment three times. All I can say of Aimard’s performance is that it seemed both timeless and finite, but as random as a snowflake in shape and form.

And so to X. This volcanic, explosive piece - played with fingerless gloves - is torrential. Perhaps more than in any of the other Klavierstücke this was the one where Aimard most brought comparisons to Giacometti and Catalano - contrasts between the blistering glissandi and tremor-like clusters against the vanishing, disintegrating silences were utterly profound. Fists and elbows thrashed and pummelled the keyboard with a pyroclastic force - but the clarity of Aimard’s unravelling of the gossamer gauze of dense scoring had a Bach-like clarity. Stockhausen demands his pianist take this music as fast as possible - as he does, incidentally, most of these Klavierstücke - and Aimard simply didn’t hold back. As with everything that had preceded it, the virtuosity just seemed to push boundaries.

Kontakte , which came after the interval, still strikes me - even today - as a radical work. It’s a piece I’ve always rather preferred to listen to in concert with my eyes firmly shut specifically because everything is engineered towards the ears. But, Kontakte is in part a highly visual work - and it was undoubtedly fascinating to see Pierre-Laurent Aimard extend his skills beyond playing the piano into elements of the second percussion player here. If this is music that is about time and space, about pulse, pitch and its polar opposite, the fusion of electronics and pure instrumentation it is also music which is about reaction and contradiction, the interlocking of rhythms and the entire spectrum of different tones.

There is a similarity in the piano part to Klavierstück X in that the music shifts between vast glissandi and crests of massively weighted chords tempered with sudden silences. The percussion (here played by Dirk Rothbrust) is in conversation with both the pianist and the electronic diffuser (Marco Stroppa) - but also his own personality. Aimard was himself a witty interloper on percussion mirroring Rothbrust’s playing on everything from bamboo rattles, claves, bongos filled with beans, crotales and gongs. In essence, Aimard and Rothbrust gave a seminal lesson in contact musicianship - and with it related entirely to create a spatial narrative that connected entirely at one with the audience. With Stroppa’s electronics giving bandwidth to what we were hearing from the two performers on stage it became an overwhelming aural experience.

Although we heard Stimmung with pretty much no interval - the Aimard concert having run to almost 150 minutes in length - the difference in pace and tone was noticeable almost immediately. There is a comforting minimalism to a lot of Stimmung and its kaleidoscope of overlayered voice frequencies remains hypnotic no matter how many times one hears the work (this was my fourth concert of it in little under two years). What also remains somewhat magical about it is that performances of it rarely identify as similar - and this one, given by London Voices, was striking in one very obvious way in how the work ended.

There was, it is true to say, a little too much reverberation from the microphones for my taste either because I was so close to the performers (I could literally see the time on their watch faces) or just because of the relative intimacy of the Purcell Room. But the clarity of the diction was impeccable, the phonetics of the complex vowel combinations tight and lucid, the distinctions between the upper and lower voices so finely attuned and balanced. Ideally, I might have wanted greater contrast between the two tenors but what we had never inhibited what we heard.

Where this performance differed from the previous ones I have recently been to was in the ending. The resolution of this work always fills me with a sense of dread - a deficit of my autism - because of the whistling. It is certainly marked as such in Stockhausen’s score of the work, but here we got something closer to overtone whispers that faded away. There was undoubtedly effortless virtuosity, with a freshness of insight to this performance by London Voices. Stimmung often embraces everything that seems prohibitive about 1968 (revolution, drugs, sex) even though Stockhausen’s inspiration for the work has a childlike simplicity which looks in the opposite direction to this. It was probably an unintended consequence of London Voice’s performance that I left this concert some 75 minutes later infused with the more radical aspects of 1968.

As demanding and challenging as this evening was, it was also unequivocally one of the highest artistic order imaginable. Few who heard Aimard’s Klavierstücke are likely to ever forget them. But this Southbank Stockhausen season, from the extraordinary Donnerstag aus Licht through to this impeccably designed programme of two events, were fascinating insights into a composer who is as revolutionary and radical today as he was more than half a century ago. He is, as this series was titled, a Cosmic Prophet.

Marc Bridle

Klavierstücke and Kontakte
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Dirk Rothbrust (percussion), Marco Stoppa (sound diffusion)

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London; Saturday 1st June 2019, 7.30pm.

London Voices: Joanna Forbes L’Estrange (soprano), Laura Oldfield (soprano) Clara Sanabras (mezzo), Richard Eteson (tenor), Ben Parry (tenor), Nicholas Garrett (bass), Ian Dearden (sound projection)

Purcell Room, London; Saturday 1st June 2019, 10.15pm.