Friday, September 7, 2012

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Bass Clarinet and Piano

The German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was a controversial and colorful figure in the already colorful and controversial world of modern (so-called avant garde) classical music.  His work was easily among the most outré of the post-World War II era, embracing abstract electronic soundscapes as well as unusual compositions for clarinet, piano and small and large ensembles. 

One work called for the use of several helicopters hovering over the performance space with the harsh whirring of the craft's blades being integral to the piece.  He also created monumental works that would have been virtually impossible to stage almost anywhere, such as one for a festival held in Iran during the early 1970s.

Stockhausen was not only influential in the modern classical scene, but also had a profound impact on musicians in the electronic scene, broadly considered rock music.  These included German performers like Kraftwerk and Neu and their British counterparts like Brian Eno and Cabaret Voltaire.  While the composer could be outwardly critical of these and others who drew inspiration from him, the direct and tangential influences are obvious.

While any modern classical music can be maddening and offputting to a great many people, YHB is inspired and fascinated by the eager and enthusiastic embrace of experimentalism behind the work of Stockhausen.  Some of the music, however, is more accessible than others (the composer occasionally has issued recordings of his conducting the work of traditional composers, such as Bach) and an album issued in 2007, the year of the composer's death, by the German label Musikproduktion Darbinghaus und Grimm or MDG not only features some of Stockhausen's most interesting acoustic works, but they are performed by a duo of superlative German musicians, Steffen Schleiermacher on piano and bass clarinetist Volker Hemken, in a production setting that is clear, rich and dynamic.

All of the works on this disc are fantastic, but the 26-minute Tierkreis, which assigns melodies to each of the dozen signs of the zodiac, is the most striking because the two instrumentalists perform together, and the bass clarinet and piano are augmented by the playful timbres of the toy piano and the music box.  The original composition was for the latter and percussion, so the subsititution of the richer, more resonant former instruments provides a marked contrast.  Excepting the nearly 6-minute Libra, which still does not drag, the individual pieces are short, concise and expertly performed.

Hemken's performance on In Freundschaft is also a marvel with Stockhausen's quite varied score allowing for a full exposition of the sounds that the bass clarinet can produce, in terms of high and low registers and in loud and soft volume, giving the illusion of more than one player.  Notably, the composer is quoted in the jacket as observing that his sense of formula in writing the work deals both with mathematics and magic and, while a trained listener (not this one, however) can understand the former as basically objective, the question of the latter is, seemingly, totally subjective, which may be the point.  Regardless of the structural question, In Freundschaft, written literally as a birthday present for Suzanne Stephens, whose clarinet work with Stockhausen's pieces was the inspiration.

Schleiermacher likewise shines on the three piano pieces taken from the Klavierstück series, composed in the 1950s and very early 1960s, and which are among the most commonly performed piano works by Stockhausen.  With the excellent recording conditions, the striking of a single powerful chord resonates with the listener and this is juxtaposed with fragments of pretty almost-Romantic playing that tend to end abruptly and drift off into the concert hall in which the performance was recorded.

The Tanza Luzefa! which is drawn from one of several operas that constitute the massive Licht cycle is a strange and intriguing mix of bass clarinet playing with purrs, smacking and other non-traditional expressions with sounds that include laughter, clicking, stamping and other elements that bring a different approach to rhythm.  The programming of this piece amidst the Klavierstück is quite interesting.

The use of the word "accessible" for this selection of works is only meaningful, perhaps, when compared to some of the more esoteric of Stockhausen's works like Mantra, Kontakte, the Spiral pieces, and the Helicopter Quartet, in which electronics and environmental distortions, like literally having helicopters flying during the performance.  But, there is a warmth and immediacy, even in their more abstract moments, that, coupled with the sensitivity and empathy that the players bring, make this album a favorite of the several Stockhausen recordings in YHB's collection.

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