Classical review: Hodges, Currie, Summers, Aurora Orchestra, Ollu / Tamara Stefanovich

 

How far has ‘new music’ progressed since the Fifties? On the evidence of two magisterial Southbank concerts, scarcely at all. John Lennon’s borrowing (for “Strawberry Fields”) from Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Junglinge” was an indication of how deeply that pioneering electronic work had penetrated mid-century culture, and to listen to it now is to experience anew the freshness of its invention. This is best done with eyes shut, because what Stockhausen’s collage does is create a landscape bursting with events of an almost tactile nature. One’s initial impression is of being painlessly dive-bombed from all angles by flocks of excited birds, but that is just one of many evanescent effects emerging from the speakers round the auditorium.

This work’s beauty lies in the purity of its conception: nerdy debates about its now primitive-seeming technology are entirely beside the point. But with Stockhausen’s “Kontakte” the materiality of the sound is crucial – in terms both of the appearance of the instruments, and of the musicians’ attack on them. And attack is the word for what pianist Nicholas Hodges and percussionist Colin Currie did to the armoury at their disposal (Hodges had his own bamboo chimes and cowbells, as well as his Steinway). It didn’t matter that the brain couldn’t register the mazy repetitions in this labyrinthine blend of electronic and acoustic sound; this was music to be felt, not analysed.

With the performance of Boulez’s “Le marteau sans maître” which followed, however, the brain was instantly engaged, thanks to a pellucid rendering by musicians from the Aurora Orchestra under Franck Ollu plus that peerless contralto Hilary Summers. As Boulez’s purpose had been to make the human voice gradually ‘disappear’ into the instrumental textures, Summers’ quintessentially instrumental sound was ideal; even in the most rapid and jagged leaps, she maintained a chiselled precision.

Tamara Stefanovich’s solo recital celebrated this same revolution through the piano, giving a dramatic momentum to Ligeti’s systematically graded explorations in “Musica ricercata”. The 139 repetitions of the same chord in Stockhausen’s “Klavierstuck IX” may reflect a now worn-out device, but Messiaen’s ‘Le courlis cendre’ into which it segued had a wonderfully resonant transparency. Very few pianists are up to the breakneck challenges of Boulez’s “Sonata No 2”, but this young Yugoslav was not only equal to them but even turned her own pages, conveying in full measure both the explosive fury and the serene lyricism of this still-astonishing work.

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