Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Prom 20: [Stock]HAUS[en]MUZIK

When the Proms programmers think they can trust us with two of the longest programmes in one evening (getting on for four hours, altogether) of nothing but Stockhausen, no less, for the life of me I don’t understand why in other programmes of each season they have to pad out unfamiliar, but often easier, repertoire with traditional ‘sweeties’. Or has Stockhausen somehow become traditional and mainstream while I wasn’t looking?

I doubt that somehow, so I’ll credit the BBC with brave—and by all accounts, it turned out—very successful programming. The music making (and yes, that is what I do call it, for those of you out there who shudder at the thought of hearing even ten minutes of this genre, never mind four hours, and I’ll try to explain why) was breathtaking from all the players and conductors involved.

The only difficulty with ‘Gruppen’ was, hearing it at home, the overall physical ‘layout’ of the music was simplified, and probably needed less concentration, than might have been the case had I been in the Arena; I missed one of the essential aspects of the composition by not being in amongst the orchestras. I suggest you read the two expert bloggers on this music: Classical Iconoclast and Boulezian on that. Conversely, it probably made the intellectual layout easier to follow.
But the conductors, David Robertson, Pascal Rophe and Martyn Brabinns, along with he BBCSO, invited the intense concentration needed from a listener with astonishing facility, so that the 24 minutes of Gruppen, played with their crystal clarity, and total grasp, seemed to be over annoyingly quickly. I understand, now, why it has apparently become ‘traditional’ to repeat it.

Gruppen is full of groupings (as its name suggests) of tone colours, meticulously arranged instrumental connections, motives and themes, constantly interacting in kaleidoscopic fashion like a musical three-dimensional chess game played four-handed by two Grand Masters. Even if you are a novice at this game, because these leitmotivs and structures are, though mathematically organised, as easy to follow (even easier, maybe) than in a Wagner opera, that is why I say it is music.

I was upset, after such a superb performance, that the audience applause was at first very coy and tentative, but it did warm up, so perhaps they were taken by surprise by the ending, or found it difficult to relax their concentration for some seconds. You do need a little while to savour it after the end, I think. To allow your memory of the textures (speaking of which, the BBCSO percussionists were particularly, primus inter pares, brilliant) to settle.

Years and years ago there was a middle-of-the-road-music trumpeter who was always described as the ‘man with the golden trumpet’. In ‘Harmonien for solo trumpet’ (‘Klang: 5th hour’)’ Marco Blaauw’s was made of quicksilver, lightning, clouds, raindrops and rainbows by turns. I don’t know whether I should have done, but I heard late, haunting, Miles Davies, too. A spectacular showpiece, eloquent, elegiac in places, absolutely entrancing and absorbing for every one of its 15 minutes, and virtuoso playing from a trumpeter who apparently breathed through his skin. Perfect pure golden sound from the R3 engineers, too.

I decided not to review ‘Cosmic Pulses’, because I’m still unsure what relationship what we heard at home bore to the actual concert: whether it was a ‘stereo version’ of it, or a totally separate recording and therefore should be reviewed as one.

Anyway, congratulations to the R3 engineers and sound producers of this Prom: they mostly get ignored, tucked away out of sight in their cramped OB van round the side of the Albert Hall, hunched over their decks, paper cups of lukewarm canteen coffee in hand and ears pinned to their little LS3/5a’s (actually, not any more: they use Dynaudio Acoustics AIR monitors in the OB van now, and have done for the last three or four years or so, but they are just as tiny)  but their work this evening was extraordinarily skilful and talented. Unlike those who work for Philips, Decca, DGG or EMI, their names never get mentioned. So, a round of applause, from me, at least. If you were listening on the ’net, or at home, you should join in. Louder, please. Make an effort so they can hear you!

R3 Relay

Prom 20: Stockhausen: Gruppen, Klang (Harmonien for Trumpet Solo)

(I’m sorry these reviews are too late for me, hopefully, to have persuaded you to listen via the iPlayer, if you didn’t hear the concert the first time around. “Kontakte’ and ‘Stimmung’ will follow, sooner or later, though on a somewhat imprecise timetable, just like the next London bus after the one you just missed. . .)


Roger Thomas said...

A small correction.

Ludovic Morlot was unable to be one of the three Gruppen conductors, so Martyn Brabbins stepped in, very competently.

Interesting review. Cosmic Pulse as heard on the radio was the officially approved CD, not a stereo version of the live (=taped) performance. Impressive in the RAH, with the sound circling around the high-placed speakers

Prommer said...

Thanks; I forgot to correct my Proms Guide on the night.

Prommer said...

I don't know if anybody's interested in technical stuff, but some years ago a musician-cum-electronics engineer ('Perfect Pitch Music') developed a piece of kit called the 'Om' (pronounced like the chant) which could produce a very creditable 360 degree 'surround sound' effect from a stereo. 4- or 8-track mixdown, which could have allowed the BBC to broadcast the actual Albert Hall performance more realistically.

I was lent the first one to play with at home for a while, in between studios hiring it, and can vouch for it.

Pity, now I think about it, it didn't occur to me to try to get the BBC engineers to try it before this concert. (Assuming it's still around; I lost touch with the designer after he moved to Paris for the better IRCAM-inspired atmosphere . . .)

Prommer said...

Almost halved my readership in one fell swoop, this piece did . . .Ouch!

Doundou Tchil said...

Thanks for the link. What the BBC used in the broadcast was a pre recorded performance of Cosmic Pulses, nit the actual live event. I 6hink it was because recording something as complex as this takes an awesome more technical preparation than "normal" broadcast and they played safe with the earlier recording. A bit like the fireworks in the Olympics - they broadcast a tape for TV to be safe, wghile people actually there saw the real thing.

Prommer said...

In a sense, the technical preparation would have already been done o get the 'show' on the road for the Prom audience, anyway, but from what I've seen previously (and I admit I tend to look out for this sort of thing instead of reading the programme!) I'd guess the technical set up would have been quite different, and entirely separate from the normal micing and mixing setup for the rest of the concert.

I do still hope (probably vainly, but outsiders hardly ever find out exactly what experiments they do make) the engineers did make a multi-track surround-sound tape of the 'real thing' though . . .I'm sure some of them would at least have been itching to try it out.

(I read your mention of the respect they are held in, btw; as I've written elsewhere, I've always felt they are rather hard done by in never getting their names in print like the performers and conductors . . .even orchestra management. And it's only people from the 'technical' or 'hobby' press like me who ever seem to pay attention to what they do

In many years of listening, I think i can only recall maybe three technical cockups, and none really serious. (I'm sure they've rescued many more I was never aware of, though.) One involved some truly awful 'pop concert' type speakers on stage, and the band's own mixing desk and producer, which I am sure were forced on them against their will. That was one of the more 'pop' nights, though, not a classical one

And the BBC's own broadcast mix turned out to be far better then the one on the hall, for that concert when I listened to my recording at home . . . it was almost as though they'd gone off to their OB van in a huff and said 'We'll show 'em!' I was very amused.)