Karlheinz Stockhausen has done rather well out of this weekend’s instalment of Southbank Centre’s The Rest is Noise festival, with his music featuring in all three of the concerts as well as the mouthwatering additional event “Breakfast with Stockhausen”. Perhaps because of his countercultural leanings and his reputation as an eccentric rather than an academician, public appetite for this composer seems a touch greater than that for contemporaries of his such as Pierre Boulez and Luigi Nono. And a further, undoubted reason why a programme of Stockhausen can pack the Royal Festival Hall this effectively is his eye for the spectacular: his three-orchestras-big magnum opus Gruppen (1955–57) is nothing if not an amazing event to witness. This performance, with a hugely swollen London Sinfonietta supplemented by players from the Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble, was yet more excellent advocacy for this difficult music, and it made the best of impressions aurally as well as visually.

London Sinfonietta in rehearsal for Gruppen
London Sinfonietta in rehearsal for Gruppen

While conductor Martyn Brabbins’ Orchestra 2 had the luxury of the hall’s stage to itself, Baldur Brönnimann and his Orchestra 1 were crammed into the boxes to the left of the stage, and Geoffrey Paterson and his Orchestra 3 occupied the same space on the right. The idea of the music surrounding its audience is crucial to Gruppen, and fortunately, this terrifying stereo effect was discernible even from a seat such as mine, a little back from all the orchestras. Sounds bounce around the hall in Gruppen, from orchestra to orchestra; they swell and shrink, refract, change, vanish. Trying to follow what’s going on would be insane. It is a world to get lost in for 25 minutes, and like any effective labyrinth it seems totally different each time you enter it: they played it twice this evening, and the two performances, immaculate though they were, both seemed very different.

It’s difficult to furnish music such as this with relevant historical context within a concert programme, but the second of the Nono pieces which came between the Gruppens had a go. Polifonica – Monodia – Ritmica (1951) is a piece written within tight serialist parameters, but it surely hints as well at the war still lurking in everybody’s mindsets in the 1950s, with its sinister, militaristic tattoo for snare drum which arrives abruptly and shatters the peace of the soft, still opening. This festival weekend had been called “Post-War World”, and sought to explain the complexities of the Darmstadt School (Stockhausen, Nono, Boulez and their contemporaries) as a journey into abstraction, almost a retreat from the horrors of war just witnessed. This Nono piece, despite its abstract framework, was the only one that hinted at this narrative.

Nono’s Canti per 13 (1955) made less of an impact straight after Gruppen no. 1, seeming to explore similar experiments in sonic texture but with vastly reduced means – thirteen instruments, all in the same place, just comes across as an anticlimax in this context. But this, like the rest of the concert, was impeccably realised – Brabbins did the honours in both the Nono pieces – and an eloquent testament to the strange power of this music to create sheens of icy beauty. History aside, this was as sonically rich a concert as any the festival is likely to produce. After all, contextualising difficult music is all very well, but a piece like Gruppen is stunning enough on its own that it doesn’t require any sort of historical narrative to justify its performance.

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