Stockhausen was a musical pioneer of genius.
Stockhausen was an egotist and a madman.
I have always held these two apparently contradictory views in equal measure, and wondered if the Late Night Prom on 19 July would clear things up one way or another.
First up was the electronic classic Gesang der Junglinge of 1956. Although powerfully projected by four speakers arrayed around the Albert Hall, electronic pieces in concert always have the drawback of giving you nothing to look at. Listening to the piece, I was most struck by the idea that Stockhausen would have worked for months creating music which could nowadays be cooked up on a laptop in a matter of hours. It also struck me that the beeps and squeaks resulting from chopping up a boy’s singing voice just sounded dated, and only interesting as a relic of its time.
The main event of the concert was the performance of the ‘World Parliament’ scene from the opera Mittwoch aus ‘Licht’, from Stockhausen’s last creative period (completed in 1997). This is an audacious re-imagining of the tower of Babel as a parliament, a choir (the marvellous Ex Cathedra) creating an organised confusion of voices discussing the subject of love, in a number of made-up languages. The singers, entering to a cacophony of competing metronomes and singing around a drone pitch, were harassed into order by a gavel-banging president. Sitting opposite each other like the House of Commons, soloists from the high voices and low voices stepped forward to make their impassioned, if incomprehensible, speeches. The other singers gesticulated their support or opposition in simple but striking choreography. Occasionally the President struck a tubular bell, indicating a change in the central pitch of the drone.
As a conceit it is brilliant, and, it must be said, brilliantly realised, both in the composition and in the performance. Ex Cathedra were calmly but precisely led by conductor Jeffrey Skidmore and showed themselves to be a truly exceptional choir. The soprano Elizabeth Drury made light of a ferociously difficult coloratura solo which put the Queen of the Night in the shade. There were moments of choral beauty, exquisite harmonic ideas sung precisely and sensitively. The only bit that didn’t work was the ending; as the parliament dispersed, a single singer remained to into what should have been the wonderfully Monty Python line: ‘And now the next scene would follow’. Unfortunately, instead of this being set simply to highlight the comedy, Stockhausen opted for a bizarre stuttering which completely ruined the gag.
This, though, was the only quibble. Without question, ‘World Parliament’ could only have been thought up by someone with a bit of craziness about him, and could only have been realised so well by a composer of real imagination and stature. Perhaps both my prejudices about Stockhausen were right.
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