Musikfest 5: The Farewell

Jesse Simon
miércoles, 7 de octubre de 2015
Berlin, sábado, 19 de septiembre de 2015. Haus der Berliner Festspiele. Stockhausen: Donnerstags-Gruß - Michaels Reise um die Erde - Donnerstags-Abschied. Marco Blaauw, Trumpet. Ensemble Musikfabrik. Paul Jeukendrup, live sound. Ilan Volkov, conductor

The suspicion that stereo recording is, for all its merits, somehow inadequate as a means of preserving late twentieth-century composition is confirmed nowhere more clearly than in the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. A full recording of Donnerstag (Thursday) from the opera cycle Licht was made available only a few years after the premiere in 1981, and for those of us not fortunate enough to be in Milan or London in the early-eighties, the only way to hear this dense, fascinating music was through one’s home Hi-Fi. Yet Stockhausen conceived of his music not simply as a series of notes and notational structures, but also in terms of the acoustic properties that governed the resulting sounds; he was conscious of music as an essentially spatial experience.

It became apparent from the opening moments of Michaels Reise - the instrumental second act of Donnerstag, given a semi-staged performance by trumpeter Marco Blaauw and Ensemble Musikfabrik as part of this year’s Musikfest - that anyone who knew this music only from recordings knew only half the story. As with much of Stockhausen’s output, the piece relies heavily on amplification and a complex system of acoustic projection, and it was the immersive quality of the sound - which created a vast sonic frame for Mr Blaauw’s inspired virtuoso performance - that proved to be the most striking aspect of the concert.

The operas that make up Stockhausen’s massive Licht cycle have all premiered to much critical attention - and, since his death, increasing praise - but their extraordinary technical and logistical demands have limited the number of subsequent stagings. However Michaels Reise, the self-contained second act of Donnerstag in which the archangel protagonist travels around the world and eventually ascends to heaven, has enjoyed something of a life of its own. The piece, scored for solo-trumpet, an amplified chamber ensemble and no voices (the three main characters are represented by various instruments) is both reasonably accessible and comparatively easy to realise in either a concert or semi-staged setting.

The staging on this evening was both minimal and somewhat deferential, adding little to Stockhausen’s essential outline for the action while keeping the visual space free of distracting sets or video projections. A raised circular platform at the centre of the stage stood in for the earth, and a series of small iconic objects - a cathedral for Köln, a bonsai for Japan, a crusader cape for Jerusalem - acted as the various stations on Michael’s journey. Any suggestion of a narrative was conveyed by the instrumental soloists who, in their roles as Michael, Lucifer, Moon-Eva, and a pair of swallows, moved about the stage engaging in a series of charged, often adversarial exchanges. 

After the Donnerstag greeting - normally performed in the foyer, but here performed in the auditorium as part of the concert - Michael appeared from the back of the hall and ended up in an immediate duel with one of the Lucifer trombones. Later, at the very front of the stage, he entered into a prolonged negotiation with the double bass shortly before an animated love duet with the basset horn of Moon-Eva. These wordless dialogues may not have added up to anything as definite as a story, but they at least fleshed out the narrative structure implied in the music.

However if the concert was successful as a theatrical experience it was largely due to the exceptional performance of Marco Blaauw, who was called upon to shoulder the bulk of the dramatic weight through the sound of his trumpet alone. As Michael he appeared with sparkly hair, and a celestial costume girdled by a tool-belt of various mutes, all of which he managed to employ within the first five minutes. The constant variations in trumpet tone, along with the dizzying array of extended techniques, were as essential to the music as the notes themselves; yet Mr Blaauw’s performance was impressive not merely for its virtuosity, but also for his ability to fold those technical demands into a wholly musical conception of the solo part.

Michael’s journey and his various encounters received solid support from the musicians of Ensemble Musikfabrik under the direction of Ilan Volkov. In addition to a trio of fine percussionists, who spent the piece moving constantly from one instrument to the next, the small group of string players turned in an assured performance that made light work of the score’s unconventional demands. Although the sounds created on stage were all miked, routed through a mixer, and sent back into the room through a series of speakers, the effect of this audio processing was subtle enough that it served mostly to heighten the presence of the instruments, and create an unusual ambience, different from that of a normal concert hall.

At the end of the piece, Michael appeared only as a large shadow on the back of stage and, as each musician stopped playing, they stood up and turned to watch the ascension in progress; but when the house lights went up and people started to leave the auditorium, one could still hear the distinctive sound of Stockhausen’s brass clusters coming from somewhere. A group of five trumpeters had stationed themselves in various parts of the foyer to perform the Donnerstag farewell, intended to send the audience on their way. However a surprising number of people stayed to the very end. Perhaps they knew that when the final trumpet had sounded it would effectively mark the end of Musikfest for another year. After three weeks of memorable concerts - many of which offered the opportunity to hear lesser-performed pieces from the past century - it would be difficult to say goodbye. 

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