Stockhausen: Kontra-punkte, Refrain, Zeitmasze, Schlagtrio / Rupert Huber, Ensemble Recherche
STOCKHAUSEN Kontra-punkte. 1 Refrain. Zeitmasze. 2 Schlagtrio • Rupert Huber, cond; 1, 2 Recherche Ens • WERGO 6717-2 (52: 14)
In his program notes for this release, British scholar, pianist, and one-time Stockhausen assistant Richard Toop reminds us that these scores were, at the time of their composition in the 1950s, among the “essential cornerstones of the emerging post-war European avant-garde.” No argument here, but the question now is, are they of merely historical interest, or do they continue to engage and gratify listeners? And the answer is, when given performances as conscientious and vibrant as these, their “avant-garde” epithet disappears and the music—for the most part—retains its luster and ability to surprise.
The one exception to the above is the earliest of the works, the Schlagtrio (1952), where the rigorous serial organization, in combination with the stark instrumentation of piano and six microtonally tuned timpani (assigned to two percussionists), projects an austere timbral and rhythmic consistency that is never allowed to—if I may borrow a description from jazz—swing. (Let’s not be dogmatic about this; Anthony Braxton once commented about how much Pierrot Lunaire swings, and it’s not too hard to hear what he means.) There’s plenty of swing—rhythmic buoyancy and syncopated, often unpredictable phrasing—in both Konrta-punkte (1953) and Zeitmasze (1956). The latter, for flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, and bassoon, used to be feared for its technical difficulties, especially the coordination of separate breath-influenced pitch and phrase lengths, but it holds no terrors for the musicians of the Recherche Ensemble, whose tempi are bright without stressing virtuosity for its own sake, and who adapt a cool demeanor to the melodic lines as they intertwine and blossom. There’s more contrast to Kontra-punkte , as the title suggests, where five pairs of instruments—flute/bassoon, clarinet/bass clarinet, trumpet/trombone, violin/cello, and piano/harp—engage in contrapuntal jousting and textural entanglements at dramatically shifting speeds, until their differences of dynamics and duration dissolve, the instruments individually drop out, and the piano concludes the activity.
The remaining piece, Refrain (1959), is, like the previous two works, concerned with the perspective of time as reflected by the nature of events, but originating from a different premise, with unconventional systems of notation (including circular staves and a moveable transparent plastic strip containing material to be interpreted and repeated according to its position) and sequences of chords that resonate and decay—an effect somewhat anticipating ideas used by Morton Feldman. Those occasional similarities may be more noticeable in the calmer version recorded by Bernhard Wambach (piano), Fred Rensch (celeste), and Mircea Ardeleanu (percussion) for Koch Schwann; the sharper attacks and implied momentum created by the members of Recherche give their performance an edgy, alert mien.
As the response to the music of Elliott Carter over the last several years has shown, even the most complex 20th-century scores speak a language that has become more familiar to us. Stockhausen may not be to everyone’s taste—nothing is, after all—but in the hands of such committed and convincing interpreters as the members of the Recherche Ensemble, his music sings.
FANFARE: Art Lange
Catalog Number: WER67172
Composer: Karlheinz Stockhausen
Conductor: Rupert Huber
Orchestra/Ensemble: Ensemble Recherche
Performer: Jean-Pierre Collot