The Stir! concert at the Gardner Museum on Thursday night left me underwhelmed by the new pieces but blown away by the warhorse. Par for the course for a classical review, I suppose, except the warhorse was Kontakte by Karlheinz Stockhausen in a concert of music for piano, percussion and electronics featuring Finnish pianist Paavali Jumppanen. A regular visitor to Boston and a musician of significant talents and a restless intellect, Jumppanen has recently completed recording the complete Beethoven sonatas, will return to the Gardner on Sunday with Schumann’s Carnival along with a reprise of Kontakte.
The two more recent pieces on the program shared many qualities: both were premieres, both were programmatic, both had evocative titles that suggested interpretations, and both attempted to recreate a mood from the past, and both utilized electronic accompaniment rather sparingly. Perttu Haapanen’s Mi Noche Triste Revisited (a U.S. premiere) borrows from what the composer informs us is Finland’s “very strong tango tradition”. The title refers to a 1912 tango by Samuel Castriota whose 1917 recording by Carlos Gardel is used as raw material for the electronics. However, that recording is so processed and distorted that it is all but unrecognizable as a tango; save for a few distant mournful moans, it is hard to recognize as deriving from music. The piano part is constructed out of swirling melodic fragments which often resolve themselves into descending scales. Generally moving towards agitation, the opening high-pitched melodies are interrupted more and more often by bass outbursts and multiple forearm clusters. Mi Noche strives for an anguished nostalgia, with technological artifacts obscuring and burying the tango recording. There are rapid thumping sounds like a drum machine, or like a skipping CD; ripping sounds that suggest rent fabric; and crackling noises as of bare live wires being joined and separated. The program note points out that the tango had been given lyrics that referred to “a pimp longing for his favorite prostitute”, and that plus the tango reference tempts one to find passion, anger, and violence in the music, but I think the piece may rely too much on the suggestibility of the listener rather than generating those emotions itself. While there is plenty of incident, it has a sameness to it and I reached the end without having perceived much of a journey. There was at least one audience member who gave the work lusty “bravos”, so perhaps I simply missed the point.
Next was a world premiere of Shadows of Bells by German composer Hans Tutschku, who since 2004 has been teaching at Harvard as well as directing the electroacoustic studios there. He was credited as the performer of the electronics for all three pieces. Shadow of Bells came in response to a three-month visit to Japan. According the program, he “visited countless temples, listened to their bells and wandered the gardens—all of them breathing with a particular rhythm. Shadows of Bells… brings those memories back into [his] musical world.” As with Haapanen’s piece, once given this information one may imagine or discover Zen in the alternations of calm rippling and sudden outbursts; the evocative, slow passages seem somehow “Japanese”. The electronics consist of actual bell sounds, from deep toned bells to chimes, along with real-time sounds derived from the piano that created a haze of resonance. There are moments of admirable craft to be found here—especially in those places where Tutschku puts two or more swift, lithe melodies alongside each other. In Jumppanen’s hands the lines could intertwine while retaining an independent identity, crystalline and lively, despite the lack of a regular pulse. Tutschku also writes of “slowness” and how he is interested in stepping out of “our fast-paced activities,” and indeed, the slow moments have a gravity and complex color worth admiring, recalling Morton Feldman, but with a brighter character. Compared to Feldman’s sense of time, though, Tutschku is positively frantic. Though the composer claims Shadows does not “replicate any existing structure or particular musical source,” I’m not sure it has enough personality as to be sui generis. The attractive surface couldn’t keep my mind from wandering at times.
In both of these works I was struck by how little the electronics were exploited; there was something a little wan about the pieces, and cautious, two adjectives one would never apply to Karlheinz Stockhausen. Kontakte was written between 1958 and 1960 and exists in a number of versions. All of them are built around a four-channel recording of electronic sounds he generated using equipment that now seems incredibly primitive. The piece was a breakthrough for Stockhausen and is a landmark in the history of electronic music. More than 50 years later the gentle swooshings and cruel outbursts, garbled and bent phrases that sound like a straining after language, complex beatings and pitch bendings sound futuristic and un-hackneyed. This world of sound has a strong personality, but remains inchoate: frictionless and weightless, able to turn arbitrarily and run off in any direction without needing to overcome inertia or build up speed. Against this environment of sound (and I mean the term both of its senses, sometimes as “adjacent” and sometimes as “opposed”) two human players, Jumppanen and Jeffrey Means, respond with live instruments, their sounds bound by physics and by physical limits, and inextricably linked by the score in front of them to the sounds made by the tape. The piece inverts the Shakesperean phrase and from within dew of recorded sound, they resolve in into a solid flesh. The vivid and exciting virtuosic expression came from within a prison of constraints. Jumppanen performed the piano part from within a nest of temple bells and other percussion that he played at the same time; Means was surrounded by a sea of instruments at the other end of the room. The spatial quality of the music is important, and the Calderwood, with its seats flush against the walls, was not an ideal place for it. With the four speakers arranged on the floor, but in front of the audience instead of surrounding them from behind, the movement of the sounds in the four channels of the tape was difficult to hear. Compensation came somewhat from my first balcony seat view, where I could the score’s observe the spiky, incomprehensible geometric shapes which Means turned into sound.
When listed as work No. 12 (Stockhausen numbered his major works, but eschewed the term “opus”), the tape is played by itself; I can’t imagine it having any impact without the live performers. No. 12½, the version performed on this occasion, adds live musicians playing piano and percussion; and No. 12 2/3 adds “theatrical elements” though I found 12½ plenty theatrical on its own. I have only known it by reputation, and much of what makes it compelling would be lost in a recording. Jumppanen would already have my gratitude just for providing the opportunity to hear it live. That it was so passionately and expertly performed only increases my gratitude. Take advantage of its repeat performance on Sunday at 1:30, suitably coupled with Schumann’s vivid, experimental Carnival.