This final concert in the Southbank Centre’s three-week Stockhausen retrospective featured two pieces composed in Stockhausen’s thirties and forties: Zyklus für einen Schlagzeuger (“Cycle for a Percussionist”) from 1959 and Mantra from 1970. The German composer-percussionist Dirk Rothbrust, acclaimed for his performances of Stockhausen’s Kontakte, performed Zyklus while pianists Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich collaborated with composer Marco Stroppa (controlling the electronic elements) on Mantra.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich © Neda Navaee
Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich
© Neda Navaee

Lasting less than fifteen minutes, every performance of Zyklus is different as the performer chooses the “direction” of the score: the instruments are arranged in order of performance but the performer chooses whether to go from left to right or right to left. Rothbrust appeared to choose left to right as he moved from the snare and tenor drums to the pitched percussion back to the gong in a frenzied whirlwind of increasing intensity. The performance bristled with frisson accentuated by Rothbrust’s keen attention to detail and dynamics, highlighted especially in the contrasts between the near-inaudible taps on the tam-tam and the cascading glissandi on the marimba and vibraphone.

The seventy-minute Mantra followed, a piece that (as its title suggests) revolves around a “mantra” or “formula” (Stockhausen deliberately avoided the terms “theme”, “row”, and “subject”) which is in essence a thirteen-note pair of counterpointed melodies first stated by Piano I (Pierre-Laurent Aimard) and repeated with augmentation and diminution with crotale hits separating the major sections of the work. Although Aimard and Stafanovich sat and played the piano as would happen in any performance of a piano duet, the sounds that came out of the pianos was distorted by the ring modulation devices Stockhausen wrote into the piece which Stroppa controlled from the middle of the hall. The thirteen sections of the piece (one for every note of the mantra) flowed smoothly, a notable highlight being the humorous tennis-style back-and-forth contest between Aimard and Stefanovich in the middle of the piece where they hurled the same phrase at each other in rapid succession, facial expressions complementing the volleys. By the time the section came where Aimard and Stefanovich stood up and howled at each other (literally), the audience was so transfixed that the abrupt timbral change did not seem out of place at all. Tape recordings infused the final few minutes of the work as the two pianists engaged in a fiercely interlocking toccata. The calm reprise of the mantra at the end brought the concert to a fitting close, putting the final touches on what the Southbank Centre aptly characterised as a “sonic spectacle”.