Friday, February 22, 2013

Dialogs and Dualities: Henze and Stockhausen

It's been a good week for German music in NYC. Yesterday I heard the Met's Parsifal (of which more when I've processed it enough for a modicum of emotional stability and intellectual coherence) and on Tuesday, I attended a thrilling concert of early works by Hans Werner Henze and Karlheinz Stockhausen at the German Consulate. Offered free of charge, this concert was part of an ongoing series dedicated to primarily German works, primarily of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; for more information, sign up for the Consulate's cultural events newsletter here. A capacity audience of all ages--some drawn to the forum, some longtime devotees of the composers--took in the fine performances by members of the Talea Ensemble with rapt attention and genuine enthusiasm.

Hans Werner Henze (date unknown)
Sylvie Robert, veteran of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, joined Steven Beck on the piano for Henze's "Whispers from Heavenly Death" (1948,) a five-song cycle setting the poetry of Walt Whitman. Although the program gave the German titles, Henze set Whitman's English; although Robert's enunciation was not always intelligible, she colored her voice expressively and handled the vocal lines with apparent ease. Steven Beck handled the piano part with similar boldness and subtlety, alternating direct attack with a more caressing touch. Its emotional effect was profound, and I found myself thinking of Wolfgang Koeppen's Tauben im Gras,  with its postwar negotiation of individual and collective trajectories, as a sort of companion piece to the cycle. Henze's work, however, ends on a note of hope. Following this, Beck gave Henze's 1959 piano sonata; it was my first hearing of this work, and I thought it absolutely gorgeous. Haunting, interconnected fragments of melody tie together its movements, from the almost angry anxiety of the first, to the restless tenderness of the second, to the resolution of the third. So striking were its similarities to the "Sonate vom guten Menschen" in The Lives of Others that I think it must have been deliberately referenced. Reverent silence greeted the conclusion.

To structure a work around the use of the microphone as musical instrument may sound like a gimmick, but in practice, Stockhausen's Mikrophonie I proved immersive and fascinating. The multiple sources and simulations of sounds still have power to surprise and stimulate. Both the volume and the frequency of the piece could be uncomfortable, I think deliberately. Two microphonists and two percussionists, using vocalization and whispers, bowls and whisks, sticks and stringed instruments as well as mallets, surrounded a tam-tam (I would have called it a gong) while two sound engineers performed rhythmically complex adjustments of dynamics and balance. Natural and mechanical sounds were thus reproduced and commented upon, sometimes giving near-narrative vignettes, sometimes providing near-overwhelming sound and fury. Veteran percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky joined the Talea Ensemble, and appeared to share good chemistry, as well as boundless energy, with their members. The virtuosity of the performers was recognized in enthusiastic applause. For myself, I found the evening intellectually and emotionally stimulating; I would say that although the Stockhausen engaged my mind, it was the Henze that grabbed my heart, but this is doubtless a matter of taste.

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