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CD Review

Karlheinz Stockhausen

Atopos 19-20


  • Klavierstück I
  • Klavierstück II
  • Klavierstück III
  • Klavierstück IV
  • Klavierstück V
  • Klavierstück VI
  • Klavierstück VII
  • Klavierstück VIII
  • Klavierstück IX
  • Klavierstück X
  • Klavierstück XI, Version 1
  • Klavierstück XI, Version 2
Bernhard Wambach-Havemann, piano
Atopos ATP019-20 2CDs

Stockhausen's eleven Klavierstücke (number XI has two versions on this CD) were written between 1952 and 1954, in 1956 and (numbers IX and X) revised/completed in 1961. They represent both one of the composer's more ambitious and (potentially) emblematic series of works… a total of 21 was originally planned. And they comprise music indicative of Stockhausen's own musical development. Composed in the order III - II - IV - I, the first four reflect his transition from "point music" (or "pointillism", where musical structure was determined atomistically, from not to note) to "group" composition, where thematic identity depends on (still small) aggregations of notes. Numbers V to X were written with what Stockhausen called "variable form". This may not be the most easily understood of descriptions. Really it implies greater attention to the physical act of "attacking" the notes; to such subjective playing instructions as "as fast as possible" where the player's actual style at that moment is privileged over notation. And the relationship between objective metrical time and subjective, perceived durations. Stockhausen himself described an analog in 1993 writing in "Perspectives of New Music 31 no. 2": "…a central pitch will sometimes be attacked with a very rapid group of little satellites around it, sustained with the pedal as a coloration of this central pitch, like moons around planets and planets around a sun." Number VI, at nearly half an hour, is by far the longest of the Stücke (numbers I, II, III, IV, V, VI and VIII are no longer than between 32 seconds and six minutes; Klavierstück X is almost 28 minutes and IX just over eleven minutes in length). Klavierstück XI is famously written in mobile, or polyvalent structure where the components are laid out to be played in the order chosen by the performer. There are two versions here.

German pianist Bernhard Wambach-Havemann was born in 1948; after formal study in Bremen and Hamburg, he attended courses with Friedrich Gulda in the mid-1970s and took part in the iconic International Summer Courses for New Music at Darmstadt from 1978 to 1982, where he later taught. His performing career spans the globe. He has also worked with many of the twentieth century's leading composers – including Stockhausen himself. Wambach-Havemann first recorded these concentrated, somewhat inward-looking pieces over 20 years ago on Koch, having first heard the composer's music in the 1960s but not adding the Klavierstücke themselves to his repertoire until the early 1980s. Now his latest approach – on just two expertly-recorded CDs from the ever-enterprising Italian label, Atopos – is more refined, distilled, concentrated. And even more full of meaning… and heart. The varied yet always carefully directed playing is nothing short of inspired. The listener will feel that Wambach extracts every possible nuance (of dynamic, tempo, texture, architecture and intention of the composer) from every moment. The pace is especially thrilling. At the end of each of the two versions of Klavierstück XI [CD.1 tr.s 1,2], for instance, we have been drawn into the particularities of the music so closely that we want to return to re-examine them in the light of what has now become just as obvious to us as their wider context was before listening. Expert playing of the first order.

Indeed, Wambach considers this new recording and interpretation to be justifiably radically different from (his) earlier interpretations. In part because he used Stockhausen's compositional notes (the textual commentary and plan) as reference, he has rethought the scope, scale and nature of the music. One might be tempted to say that Wambach has "tamed" music that tended to earn its keep in the middle of the last century by its extremes of playability and conventional cohesion. Yet at no time, this recording shows, was what Stockhausen wrote ever at all implausible, or truly inaccessible. Remarkably, though, Wambach isn't "interceding" for us with Stockhausen. Every note is conveyed raw and pure, as open and crystalline as when it was written. Yet the intention of the composer is never obscured by the pianist's expositional skills.

Wambach does, perhaps, expose the relationships between tempi, shifting tonal centers, the resulting mobility (some of it left to chance: XI is openly aleatoric) of texture and timbre more explicitly. He acts as a guide (but a reserved, yet confident, guide) in explaining why Stockhausen chose to distribute notes in the various registers of the piano as he did.

Wambach also, significantly, pulls into focus and order what could easily be experienced as an essentially centrifugal musical conception, as something that circles around its musical (not its sonic) center hinting at an engagement by the listener which at times isn't clear. This obviously comes from Wambach's great familiarity with and fondness for the work. Only by a thorough understanding of its genesis and development can a performer really understand then embrace the structure and direction that the hour and three-quarters of music on these two CDs takes, is perhaps thought to take, and does not take. This can be heard particularly clearly, for example, in the repetitions and silences of Klavierstück IX [CD.2, tr.3]

The acoustic of these two CDs is conducive to really appreciating the intensity and yet the broad scope of this music. The booklet that comes with them in German, Italian, English and French is informative as far as it goes; but – given the complexity and importance of the musical world which the Klavierstücke reflect and inhabit – it could have benefited from more exposition, and a larger font! Enthusiasts for Stockhausen and his world can hardly afford to miss this landmark recording, which must now be considered the leading one. Those curious about developments in the 1950s and 60s who want it interpreted with real style and understanding by a specialist proponent will also want to get these CDs. Recommended without hesitation.

Copyright © 2014, Mark Sealey