First Night: Stockhausen's Zen tapestry

London Sinfonietta Queen Elizabeth Hall London

THINK STOCKHAUSEN, think Gruppen, Mantra or Hymnen. Newer music may come and go, but these titles, like others from the roster of the master's compositions, have permanent residence in the gallery of the New. The arrival of his 70th birthday this year may, therefore, come as a surprise both to his disciples and to those for whom the name bears agreeably misty associations with a progressive spirit. Yet even more surprising is the revelation, according to the London Sinfonietta, that their celebration of this anniversary is the only major concert in the United Kingdom to mark the event.

Never bold, confident morning again? Or just a sign of fashion and evidence of market forces in today's chill world? Audiences must wait a few more years yet to learn the truth about Stockhausen's real place in the music pantheon.

Meanwhile, at the Queen Elizabeth hall last night, his present status was applauded by a large and eager group of supporters. Their visible diversity was a tribute to the broad and diverse appeal of his work. In contrast, Stockhausen, who in life as in art has never made things easy for himself, was absent. It was rumoured that aspects of the programme displeased him. If so, then pity for him. For on this occasion, part of the BBC's Sounding the Century festival and the first of the Sinfonietta's 1998/9 season, Oliver Knussen made his debut as music director with a memorable evening.

Refrain began the proceedings, its delicate tapestry of piano, celesta and vibraphone produced partly by chance yet deftly woven by the Sinfonietta players. John Cage was a pertinent influence and in the use of indeterminacy as tested by Stockhausen, lay suggestions of Zen and of the East that flowed smoothly into the theme of Japan, already touched on in the pre- concert foyer presentation, and central to the electronic Telemusik, principal piece in the first half.

Created in Tokyo in 1966, it was a turning point piece, in which Stockhausen unlocked the richness of music from beyond the boundaries of the West. Wednesday's hearing, with sound projections by Sound intermediate left a crisp and acidic impression, retaining much of the original sense of startling novelty undimmed by three decades of sometimes unflattering imitation.

In the second half, past met present in the UK concert premiere of Der Jahreslouf, written for Japanese Gagaku Band in 1977, and now part of Dienstag, from Stockhausen's on-going opera cycle Licht. Impersonating Gagaku instruments in the concert version, guitar, synthesisers, piccolo flutes, soprano saxophones, anvil and bass drum interacted with taped intrusions that included the voice of the composer. Knussen and Gregory Rose gave musical direction.

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