After the epic grandeur, sweep and immersive quality of Gesang der Jünglinge at this summer’s Proms, this performance as part of Southbank Centre’s The Rest is Noise festival had a lot to live up to. In many ways, however, this far less ostentatious outing overseen by Sound Intermedia got even closer to the work’s disturbing essence. In the relative confines of the Queen Elizabeth Hall it became a threatening, claustrophobic experience – the strange transformed and multiplied boy treble swallowed in white-hot explosions of electronic sound.

Stockhausen & Mesias Maiguashca at WDR Studio for Electronic Music, Cologne (June 1971). Photo: Wern © Reproduktion der Photos mit freundlicher Genehmigung der Stockhausen-Stiftung für Musik, Kettenberg 15, 51515 Kürten (facs: 02268-1813)
Stockhausen & Mesias Maiguashca at WDR Studio for Electronic Music, Cologne (June 1971). Photo: Wern
© Reproduktion der Photos mit freundlicher Genehmigung der Stockhausen-Stiftung für Musik, Kettenberg 15, 51515 Kürten (facs: 02268-1813)

After this, the rather workaday reading of Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître from members of Aurora Orchestra fell flat. For all its grace and poise, the alto flute playing of Jane Mitchell lacked the robust tone needed to cut through the resonant vibes and xylorimba of Scott Lumsdaine and Henry Baldwin, and never unlocked the full will and sensual potential of Boulez’s writing, which at times verges on the orgiastic improvisations of Eric Dolphy. The delicate nature of her playing worked best in the first commentary on Bourreaux de solitude which also benefited from Max Baille’s lithe viola, the pizzicato triplets of which snagging deliciously against the molo perpetuo feel. Poised claves and cowbells from Owen Gunnell ensured much of the work really danced, whilst Steve Smith’s twangling guitar playing – at its best in the numerous violent, punctuating thwacks – was not always present enough in the texture in the quiet plusher moments.

No-one else has a voice quite like Hilary Summers: rich and velvety but also cool and almost metallic. Her serpentine vocal figures were handled with expert care, though a little too often she left the latent emotion of a line’s suggestive intervals untapped. With Franck Ollu’s steady hand at the tiller, this performance always felt secure but never really took off. More could have made more of the exquisite harmonies at the end of the first version of Bel édifice et les pressentiments which accompany the image of “pure eyes in the woods” whilst the alternations between solo flute, crashing gongs and humming voice in the work’s final moments didn’t hang to together in a way which convinced.

The concert’s highlight was a performance of Stockhausen’s Kontakte by two musicians of tremendous technical facility with a love and deep understanding of the music to match: Nicolas Hodges and Colin Currie. As in the Boulez, gongs played a prominent role – though here as a means of kickstarting the piece rather than as a way of bringing it to halt. The surety with which Hodges juggled a bewildering array of percussion instruments, never mind the volcanic piano part itself, was astonishing. In Currie’s hands, every gesture was made to seem convincing, engaging and filled with nuance. The spontaneity and subtlety with which the duo imbued their interactions with the tape made this not simply exciting but also chamber music playing in the truest sense. In amongst all this riotous hocketing between the acoustic and electronic, there was contemplation and centeredness too; after an outrageous synthesised smear which corkscrewed around the hall the music suddenly dropped back and tinkered in and around a single hushed unison. Totally captivating from the first sound to the last.