Paavali Jumppanen, Jeffrey Means, and Hans Tutschku performed Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Kontakte for piano, percussion, and electronic sounds at the Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Sunday Concert Series causing at least one listener to wince while covering her ears. On the other side of the program, Jumppanen’s idea of Robert Schumann’s Carnaval could be best described as a jumble.
“In 2015, the soundscape of Kontakte may come across as dated or sound vintage to modern ears, but the work’s cool optimism has not been eroded…” so writes Jumppanen in his own optimistic, if not effusive, way. Dating back to the late fifties, the 35-minute work is timeless, but not in the sense that Jumppanen is purporting; rather, it felt as though we were in the same place for over one-half hour, never moving forward or looking back. Timeless in Jumppanen’s meaning? I could not disagree more; it is time for Kontakte to be returned to the stacks.
In hindsight, the mid-century crossover of acoustic instruments and electronics turns out to be nothing more than formulaic. Piano trills embellish otherwise bleak utterances of blips and blasts, a note here, a note there. Percussion rolls and tremolos exasperate a seasoned listener’s sensitivity. With such a pile of instruments taking much of the floor space of Calderwood Hall, a fairly good number above, below, and around the piano, and a quartet of speakers, a veritable soundscape we could have had, but did not by any means.
What truly is maddening is the utter seriousness of the three performers, even when Stockhausen’s magnetic tape took to a kind of cranked up Bugs Bunny rambling. Around that cartoon’s hyper voice-like spinning came violent assaults from the live musicians’ panoply of instruments. Really, what is this Kontakte telling us? What message are the apparently devoted performers delivering? Was it the repertoire or the flabbergasting weather in Boston that limited the audience to one of the slimmest ever?
While polite applause and some youthful groupie-like vocalizations followed the Stockhausen, that kind of appreciation ratcheted up for Jumppanen, I am supposing, and not for Schumann.
I say that because the Romantic era composer, so in love with the piano and Clara, surfaced only momentarily. The real person of interest in this piano spree took center stage with the Steinway’s lid removed.
Jumppanen literally jumped into Carnaval’s “Preamble” not even waiting a second after reaching the artist’s bench. And he flew through nearly all of Schumann’s improvisatory cycle of miniatures full of youthful affect with absolute conviction. Jumppanen dared to elevate a connecting inner voice to a degree never heard before. His satisfaction over prolonging a cadence well past its due was striking, if not ever so cutesy.
The repeated notes of “Pantalon et Colombine” were not jocular; they came across sounding like a player piano with the tempo bar all the way to the right. The severe contrasts in “Valse Noble” furthered the effect of jumbling. Schumann’s music never sat still or collected itself. Two complete puzzlers, the first coming with Means sneaking up to his vibraphone then whispering some tremolos, the second coming with the pianist allowing a dominant function chord to emerge as he pedaled his way out of a long held climatic moment. Paavali Jumppanen micromanaged Carnaval to such an extent that when it came time for the concluding “Marche des Davidsbündler contre les Philistins” the incredibly equipped pianist could only pound.
An aside: One wonders after reading all the movement titles, why en français? According to Steven Ledbetter, “Schumann’s original title, translated from German, was Carnival: Jests on Four Notes, suggesting that the whole thing was a kind of sport.” But he chose to publish it with a French title because, as a piano teacher said, “French culture was considered the pinnacle of artistic life at the time. That’s why Schumann’s favorite author, Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, went by “Jean Paul.” That’s why Chopin and Liszt hung out in Paris. It’s also why Schumann’s Op. 2 is named Papillons (Butterflies). It’s actually more striking that Schumann would use German titles and indications in works like the Fantasiestucke and Kinderszenen [and Davidsbündlertänze], as it was uncommon to use German in scores; Beethoven was being quite the maverick when he switched to German for the late piano sonatas.
Though BMInt’s Brian Shuth had nice things to say [here] about last Thursday’s Kontakte performance in a contemporary themed context, does the Sunday afternoon Gardner crowd really want to hear Stockhausen with its Schumann? The connection eludes me. All the enlightenment we got from Jumppanen was “I’ve called this program “Carnival” for various reasons: It was handy to borrow the name from the work concluding the three-concert cycle focusing on [Stockhausen and Schumann]…”