Mauricio Kagel (1931-2008), the 20th-century composer who is largely known for his musical spoofs and light-hearted theatrical scores for stage, screen and concert hall, was showcased with a program of his more serious works on 13 July during the annual Lockenhaus Chamber Music Festival in Burgenland, Austria. Hearing Kagel’s three startlingly vivid Piano Trios, written in 1984, 2001 and 2006, proved to this listener that he is worthy of a lovingly curated retrospective.

© Balazs Borocz
© Balazs Borocz

Using the title theme "Terra Nova", Lockenhaus’ 34th edition and fifth season for artistic director and cellist Nicolas Altstaedt, was held 7–16 July and featured Kagel among a long list of 20th-century composers in addition to a few standard classical works. There were also performances of new pieces by living composers Francesca Verunelli and Raphaël Merlin, whose See: Sea & Seeds, Si! for cello and orchestra was a world première.

The Kagel program was subtitled "2001" to reflect his particular prescience, as his Second Trio is - by bizarre coincidence - unknowingly influenced by the events in the U.S. on 11 September of that year. Although musicologists have more or less pronounced Kagel's mid-century reputation in Europe as somewhat insignificant compared to others of the era, these Trios, performed here by Trio Imàge, were a revelation and an absolute reversal of that shortsighted assumption.

Imàge’s violinist Gergana Gergova, cellist Thomas Kaufmann, and pianist Pavlin Nechev, have devoted themselves recently to performing and recording Kagel's works. Their skilled renditions on this day brought to light not only Kagel's serious side, but his genius in forming a new language (his own "terra nova") that painted evocative drama bearing an urgent sense of doom.

The composer, born in Argentina of Russian parentage and who lived most of his life in Germany, wrote about his relief at finally completing his first serious work in 1985: "With [this] trio I have fulfilled a long-cherished wish… The history of the piece is [connected to] my music epic about the devil 'La trahison orale' … During the conception of the work, I decided to compose character pieces, relatively short numbers with distinct atmosphere that can be compared [to] songs without words." (Quote excerpted from Miriam Weiss’ program notes for Lockenhaus.)

This First Trio has three movements that create palpable linear drama, beginning with contemplative noodling offset by sharp exclamations, developing a psychological portrait that straddles edges of spooked perception and paranoia. The effects he uses, like a scratching bow and extra-heavy bow pressure on the strings, are not for effects' sake at all: they are master brushstrokes within an ominous textural microcosm. Oddly, we are not plunged into an irreversible gloom; on the contrary, we walk away with a sense of alertness and awe at Kagel's message.

The one-movement Second Trio, composed in 2001, was completed on 11 September, immediately before Kagel received a phone call with the horrific news from the U.S., just moments after the first World Trade Center Tower was hit. His intuition - almost clairvoyance in this case - is quite evident in this score. A sense of lurking evil is omnipresent in his musical language, but one can grasp this aspect even without prior knowledge of the eerie timing of the composition. The orange alert he creates through haunting lyricism dotted with psychologically timed effects continually puts us at slight unease, and by the end, the musically delineated specks of dust of a former civilization is quite simply devastating.

In the two-movement 2006 Trio he intones another postmodern expression filled with fatalism. Although somewhat jocular with walking bass figures, he takes delight in swimming in opacity characterized by idle wandering and then indulging in spontaneous novelty. Kagel, by this year, was suffering from incurable cancer, and keenly felt his impending demise, which he unflinchingly transmuted into this score. His coloristic palette occasionally threw in an Argentine tango or two, but he generally speaks to an uncomfortable truth - whether it’s apocalyptic or purely personal.

To dismiss Kagel’s larger body of work is a mistake. With equal amounts of high-end lyricism, wit and whimsy, and prescient protracted gasps of horror, we can feel our own cosmic denouement as accurately as he felt his own prolonged death. To a large extent, Kagel’s “terra nova” language is the perfect mirror of the series of bleak events we’ve already experienced in the 21st century.