fri 19/07/2024

Stockhausen/Nono, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Stockhausen/Nono, Royal Festival Hall

Stockhausen/Nono, Royal Festival Hall

Compelling story-telling from the postwar serialists

Karlheinz Stockhausen: a composer whose works transgressed the First Law of the Avant Garde

There’s been a lot of backslapping over the success (so far) of The Rest is Noise festival, the Southbank’s year-long trawl through the music of the 20th century. They’re particularly pleased about the numbers of ignorant musical souls they’ve managed to convert over the past half a year.

I hate to break it to them but getting a return on the music of the first half of the 20th century (which has included a surprising amount of barely 20th-century Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Strauss and Sibelius) is the easy bit. Last night we reached the 1940s and 1950s. It’s here that things traditionally get sticky.

These are the decades that challenge the First Law of the Avant-Garde, which states that any piece of music considered difficult today will be guaranteed a performance on Classic FM within 50 years. Seventy years later, we’re still waiting. That said, if any concert was to convince you that Integral Serialism might finally be having its day it was last night’s.

It's a language that still feels of the future. It certainly continues to have plenty to teach us

We began with a classic, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s three-orchestra Gruppen (1955-1957). Even by the standards of Integral Serialism, whose aim is superabundance - the display of as many colours, intervals, dynamics and pitches as one can order and control - Gruppen is mesmerisingly all-embracing. If the textures don’t grab you, there are the rhythms. If the rhythms don’t grab you, there are the spatial effects. If the spatial effects don’t grab you, there are the shapes.

In last night’s performance - the three orchestras made up of members of the London Sinfonietta and the Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, Baldur Brönnimann and Geoffrey Paterson and arranged around the stalls – pretty much everything grabbed me. Gruppen is full of compelling battles: between ideas of drowsiness and alertness, between percussion and non-percussion, between clarity and chaos. 

Though there is no conventional narrative (beyond the haphazard narrative of reality), a climax does appear: crashing waves of tam-tam-heavy orchestral sound that sweep in from one side, then another - a buffeting worthy of a Caribbean hurricane. But there were quieter eddies too: the drum and double bass duet, the little song for electric guitar, the two-harp tussle. And then there was the rising horn ending: the most beginningy end you’ll ever hear. So beginningy, I missed it - twice.

They repeated Gruppen - as is now traditional. Inevitably, even more drama and interest came with the second hearing. In between the two Gruppens were two transfixing chamber works by Luigi Nono, Canti per 13 (1955) and Polifonica - Monodica - Ritmica (1951).

Canti per 13 is an exemplar of Point Music, a mode of musical organisation Stockhausen pioneered that seeks affinity with the organisation of the stars in the night sky. The work sees a series of intervals distributed across the 13 instruments strictly democratically. Ravishingly played by the Sinfonietta under the baton of Brabbins, the composition combines a Webern-like economy and quietness of emotion with an Italian sensuousness that makes it pretty irresistible.

Polifonica, the earliest of the three works, is more relaxed. The sounds are also more familiar. They are strung together for one thing. We open on a soft, cymbal-cushioned tread. We then are given snatches of the outside world: the rhythms of a nightclub, a martial beat. Before we can fully locate either, Nono rips both from their moorings and dances us into a mysterious new realm. 

The capacity crowds (so rammed they ran out of programme notes) offered a standing ovation for Gruppen. There should have been one for the Nono works too. The night was a reminder that Integral Serialism tells stories that no other music can. It's a language that still feels of the future. It certainly continues to have plenty to teach us.  


Igor Isn’t there more to the appeal of music than its being striking and original? What about the experience of being overwhelmed by its beauty or by its truthfulness in the representation of emotion?

Plenty of beauty, truthfulness and emotion in all three pieces. Sorry that didn't come across in the review.

I don't see the need for the slightly sour tone at the start. The way this whole year has been organised deserves a slap on the back and another way of looking at 'the ignorant' is 'the newly enlightened: ie the creation of a genuinely new audience, that's to be applauded, surely? You're only seeing a small part of the whole weekend: the planning of talks and culturally related events around this and the other concerts on Saturday and Sunday gives a much bigger picture. Anyway, it's good you managed to be so positive about the event you reviewed.

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