Musikfest IV: Space is the Place

Jesse Simon

martes, 2 de octubre de 2018
Berlín, jueves, 13 de septiembre de 2018. Kammermusiksaal. Stockhausen: Klavierstücke I-XI. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano. Berliner Musikfest 2018
Pierre-Laurent Aimard ©

In the early days of the internet, when Netscape was still the browser of choice and only the foolhardy would have dared type their credit card number into it, Karlheinz Stockhausen had his own website. It was modest by modern standards, but it allowed web-savvy listeners to buy official Stockhausen merchandise -including CDs of his music, much of which was otherwise out of print- as well as browse through a selection of scores and sketches. There was also a curious page where one could view a (fairly extensive) collection of cartoons that were generally rude about Stockhausen’s music, often using it as the punchline for jokes. The page may have been an inconsequential piece of filler, but it opened the unexpected -even somewhat jarring- possibility that, beneath all the conceptual rigour and forbidding theory, there was a composer with a sense of humour, perhaps even someone who took active delight in his reputation as the pinnacle of inaccessibility in twentieth-century music.

That reputation, of course, was partly of his own making: during his life, Stockhausen went out of his way to cultivate the larger-than-life persona of a difficult visionary. Who else would devote the last three decades of their life to creating a seven-day, twenty-nine-hour opera cycle involving actual helicopters? Yet one would be hard-pressed to name a post-war composer who had a greater impact on the wider cultural consciousness of his own time. Boulez may be more revered, and Messiaen more loved; Ligeti and Penderecki may be more widely heard due to their inclusion in film soundtracks; but Stockhausen is arguably the more pervasive. His presence can be found in the DNA of rock (Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay of the influential group Can both studied with him), in the more progressive corners of jazz (Miles Davis and Teo Macero followed his example when assembling Bitches Brew), and in much modern electronic dance and ambient music (where Kontakte is still a touchstone). His records still command vast sums on eBay. The mere mention of his name can still provoke polarising reactions.

In the decade since Stockhausen left Earth to join Sun Ra on the astral plane, the carefully constructed myth has started to recede into distant memory. If it has become easier to see beyond the provocateur and appreciate the hard-working composer and educator possessed of boundless curiosity and energy, it has also become easier to judge his music on its merit alone … that is, if one can find anyone brave enough to perform it. Individual pieces have appeared at previous editions of Musikfest -there was a semi-staged performance of Michaels Reise in 2015 and a partial performance of Hymnen in 2012- but this year we were fortunate enough to have four separate concerts devoted to different aspects of Stockhausen’s unwieldy oeuvre.

For the first concert, Pierre-Laurent Aimard took us on a tour of the eleven Klavierstücke from the mid-fifties. Mr Aimard is a frequent guest at Musikfest, and his solo concerts, often devoted to a single large work or corpus -from the first book of Bach’s Wohltemperierte Klavier to the complete piano sonatas of Boulez- are illuminating as much for their endurance and dedication as their intelligent pianism. While the Klavierstücke fit more comfortably into the normal span of a single concert than, say, Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux, the concentration of ideas within these prismatic pieces made for an expansive, transformative experience.

The eleven early Klavierstücke were composed between 1952 and 1956 -although IX and X were both revised in the sixties- and in them one can trace a journey from simple sonic inquiries toward more pronounced extremes of rhythm, harmony and performance technique. Mr Aimard did not play the pieces in their numeric order, but sequenced the first eight and the final three into two programmes of roughly equal length which highlighted Stockhausen’s exponential advances in approach and method.

The first four, composed initially in 1952, were brief and spacious. In I and IV especially there was a fascination with the possibility of single notes; harmonic relationships were suggested as much through juxtaposition as through chords and clusters. Piece V was beautiful and crystalline, alluding constantly to its rhythmic foundation but never quite willing to make it obvious; one could almost imagine a free improv pianist arriving at a similar place, albeit via a very different route. And Piece VII offered an extended exploration of the spaces created by allowing the ringing notes to decay, with Mr Aimard’s restrained forcefulness and the acoustic of the Kammermusiksaal contributing to a mesmerising several minutes.

Piece VI, which concluded the first half, was both a distillation and expansion of everything we had heard to that point. If the other pieces had been studies into individual aspects of sound, VI was closer to a disseration in which the extremes of density and spaciousness, of high and low notes, of rhythm and abstraction, were fashioned into something more vast and more immediate. Mr Aimard’s ability to articulate even the knottiest clusters with a light touch, to convey the smallest subtleties of dynamic, and to sculpt sonic decay into palpable space gave piece VI the feeling of a fully realised world unto itself.

The three pieces that made up the second half were composed around the same time as VI – although IX and X were revised in 1969 and 1961 respectively – but they sounded both more confident and more densely populated with notes and ideas. In Piece XI, which features several fragments arranged on the page in no set order, the performer is given some freedom regarding the final form of the performance. Mr Aimard made it all sparkle, effortlessly integrating unconventional sounds into the mix. Piece IX, which attacked its opening cluster with an almost minimalist fury but then pulled back to luxuriate in the properties of sustain and decay, was played with tremendous rhythmic insistence; even in its moments of drift, an echo of the pulse seemed to remain.

It was the evening’s final piece, however, that was the most revelatory. After first putting on a pair of white fingerless gloves, Mr Aimard spent the next quarter hour using palms, fists and forearms to draw extraordinary sounds from his instrument. Of all the Klavierstücke, X offered the clearest evidence of the Stockhausen who would cut such a singular path through the following two decades: it was complex, brash and thoroughly riveting, a work in which the boundaries between music and spectacle became blurred to the point of irrelevance. Mr Aimard embraced its theatrical nature to some extent – his assured realisation of the technical demands was a delight to see as well as hear – but he never allowed the music to descend into undisciplined pounding. The moments of key-mashing abandon were, indeed, no more or less impressive than the unearthly reverberations left hanging when the playing stopped, or the extremes of sound, silence, complexity and simplicity that gave the piece its alluring shape. The astonishing intensity of Mr Aimard’s performance built toward an unexpected state of grace; when it was over there could be no doubt we had witnessed something extraordinary.


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