MUSIC / Puppets, zombies and battering-rams

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The Independent Culture
The Mauricio Kagel brought to Belfast's Sonorities festival by the Theater am Marienplatz of Krefeld (TAM) was, in the main, the Kagel of the 1960s and early 1970s: this Kagel is a manipulator of the unexpected, who marshals his players like a puppet-master with an acute sense of the grotesque.

Acustica (1968-70) featured four individuals toying with a child's paradise of unusual instruments and non-instruments - including nail fiddles, a tree- like, piped contraption powered by compressed air, castanet sandals - all of which were explored with zombie-like persistence by the po-faced performers ('beings from a distant star', according to the programme note).

Repertoire, a scenic concert piece from the much larger Staatstheater, dates from the same period and is a series of often clownish puns and gags, sometimes uproarious, sometimes outrageous, always ingenious. Again, the automaton- like discipline of the TAM players contributed hugely to their effectiveness.

The earlier Kommentar und Extempore, which opened the second of TAM's programmes, was given on an arid set of bare wood and hardboard. It's a mad- house ballet with recitations, where the performers combine apparent emotional docility with often elaborate physical agitation as they explore and uninhibitedly articulate impulses and speech patterns that would normally be the preserve of the extremely young and the mentally disturbed.

As ever, even in performances as resourceful as TAM's, it's hard to know what to make of this side of Kagel (his more recent work has tended towards more conventional musical forces). If he just wants to make a Duchamp-like statement about evaluative perspectives, then there's a lot of self-indulgent redundancy in tow. If he's engaged on the systematic exploration of sound, like the John Cage of the 1930s and 1940s, then the organisational technique is slack. On the other hand, if he's happy for the exuberantly inventive, childlike playfulness to strike home by engaging one's attention and making one laugh - and he seemed to suggest this in his public 'conversation' with festival chairman Agustin Fernandez - his success is unquestionable. The enthusiastic applause at the Lyric Theatre suggested that it's quite enough to keep his audience happy too.

The UK premiere of Gerald Barry's Flamboys of 1992 was chosen to open the festival. This piece inhabits a world familiar from Barry's 1988 Proms commission, Chevaux-de-frise. But the battering-ram metaphors much called upon to describe that work seemed out of place here when the Russian conductor Fedor Glushchenko chose to smooth some of the contours and replace the familiar ruggedness with highlights of virtuoso gloss. The approach, which he also applied to the earlier and sweeter Diner, was overwhelmingly successful and prompted the composer to enthuse publicly about the excitement of hearing his orchestral music performed for the first time as though within an established performing tradition.

The Dublin-based ensemble Nua Nos presented an all-Barry programme that included the UK premiere of an opaque- sounding Sextet as well as the fascinating, tightly-trapped canons of the recent Piano Quartet. The Japanese pianist Noriko Kawai has made something of a speciality of Barry's music, and it shows. In her recital she carved out parts of the obsessively scalic Au milieu with the firmness of intricate steps cut in granite, and she revelled in the hyperactivity of the second half of the demanding Sur les pointes. Her hugely stimulating recital also included two of Messiaen's pieces from the late 1940s, Neumes rhythmiques and Canteyodjaya, which in her unmannered readings sounded as fresh- minted as when they were new.

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