In light of this month’s choral theme on Bachtrack, Stockhausen’s monumental Momente seemed too good an opportunity to miss. A work rarely performed, particularly in Paris, the concert is part of the larger Wagner/Stockhausen series currently programmed at the Cité de la Musique, seeking to shed light (and unite) these two composers of vast musical cycles. Situated somewhere between opera, cantata and theatre, blended with abstract expressionism, Momente is a work of great magnitude and ambition: Stockhausen himself aimed to create an all-encompassing work, one he hoped would become “practically an opera of Mother Earth surrounded by her chicks”.

Péter Eötvös © Jean-François Leclercq
Péter Eötvös
© Jean-François Leclercq

First performed in its entirety in 1972, the concert was given by the Westdeutscher Rundfunk choir, conducted by the composer himself. Although this time around Stockhausen was only present in memory, Péter Eötvös is no stranger to the work, having been in close contact with Stockhausen precisely during the creative years of Momente, and indeed assistant to the composer during the rehearsals. Both the choir and the conductor are, therefore, wholly and intimately familiar with Stockhausen’s work.

Surrounded at first by only five musicians, soprano Julia Bauer’s opening passage calls for the choir to “enter”. The choir is therefore slowly introduced into the hall, passing through the audience along with the remaining musicians, finally joined by Péter Eötvös. Amplified by a microphone, Julia Bauer was fortunately not obliged to force her voice in order to pierce the surrounding powerful elements, thus able to project her voice over the impressive sound from the musicians whilst still retaining a clear and unstrained diction. Although the text was projected overhead so that the audience could follow the various texts (drawn from the writings of Martin Luther, Mary Bauermeister, and William Blake, alongside the various invented poems by Stockhausen himself), Bauer’s crystal-clear diction and projection made this almost unnecessary. Whilst my German is not of such a level that I am able to forego such luxuries, I found myself despite this language barrier more often drawn by Bauer’s mere stage presence and fantastic vocal impression than the texts displayed above.

Although the work frequently verges on the brink of comedy, none of the musicians shied away from the possible theatrical and humorous overtones, instead embracing these eccentricities to their full potential. Though these comedic passages are somewhat jarring at times in an otherwise serious work, Julia Bauer’s almost childish voice seemed to only intensify the music’s frantic atmosphere.

Momente is a work unquestionably focused on sensation and perception. Full of spoken words, whispered and murmured phrases, giggling, shouts and screams, laughter, hissing, shuffled feet, and clapping, the work draws upon a wide array of sounds and textures, going beyond the constraints of instrumental and vocal limitations. Equipped with cardboard tubes, mallets, claves, metallic objects and other fabricated instruments, the choir plays an integral role in the shaping of these sensations with the musicians, and the WDR choir displayed full competence, switching with ease between complex polyphonic choral passages, percussive passages and even physical actions. Full of energy and impressive synchronicity, the Ensemble Intercontemporain and the WDR choir brought the work to life. Eötvös created a perfect balance of voices, resulting in not one voice standing out but rather a perfect blend and synthesis of different elements. Each “momente”, devised to focus on a specific allusion, K (timbre), M (melody), and D (rhythm), was carefully coloured by the particular instruments and voices.

Performing (and indeed listening to) Momente is certainly a daunting prospect. However, when performed by the WDR choir under the excellent direction of Péter Eötvös, the work blossoms and reveals its true intent and decisive elements. On paper, “modular transposability” is an alienating prospect, yet it ultimately makes sense when brought to life. Such an engrained knowledge of, and familiarity with, any work of music ultimately crosses the line dividing mere interpretation and convincing performance. This concert was undoubtedly the latter.

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