Karlheinz Stockhausen: Cosmic traveling through his Klavierst¸cke, Kontakte and Stimmung

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 Klavierst¸cke I-XI was not numerical but was crafted to
internalise – and externalise – what would come afterwards. Klavierst¸ck 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 Klavierst¸ck 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 Klavierst¸cke, 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

Stockhausen described his Klavierst¸cke 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 Klavierst¸cke, 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 Klavierst¸cke 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 Klavierst¸ck 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 ÈgorgÈe, 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 Klavierst¸cke 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.

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 Klavierst¸cke 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 Klavierst¸cke – and Aimard simply
didn’t hold back. As with everything that had preceded it, the virtuosity
just seemed to push boundaries.

, 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 Klavierst¸ck 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 Klavierst¸cke 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

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.

product_title=Stockhausen, Cosmic Prophet: Royal Festival Hall
product_by=A review by Marc Bridle
product_id=Above: Pierre-Laurent Aimard