Mittwoch aus Licht
Birmingham Opera Company at the Argyle Works, Birmingham, August 22
By David Fallows
Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet probably stands as the most iconic piece of classical music from the 1990s, the four players in four separate helicopters, their mainly tremolando playing electronically mixed with the sound of the rotor-blades in a way that confuses the ear and creates unexpected new sounds. And it has been performed fairly regularly since its premiere in 1995. But it has never before been staged in its true context, as the second scene of the opera Mittwoch aus Licht, largely because any earlier attempts at a full performance had foundered against myriad problems, musical, technical, financial and organizational. So, of the seven operas that comprise the full Licht cycle, this is the last to be staged complete, a year after the Cologne premiere of Sonntag and five years after the composer’s death.
That the Birmingham Opera Company managed what had defeated so many others must go largely to the credit of its artistic director Graham Vick, who has taken on many severe challenges in the quarter century of its existence. But it was not just the cash and the effort or the mere stamina of assembling five hours of horrifically hard music. Vick directed the whole performance with what seemed like a perfect blend of discipline, restraint and wild imagination. Stockhausen’s notoriously precise and often quite loopy staging instructions can be hard to carry out, particularly in the scene of the Orchestra Finalists, where each player’s solo—executed from a suspended chair high in the
theatre—is intended to be above a different scene, whether a cathedral, or a swimming pool with elephants, or a marketplace in Marrakech, and so on. These Vick did mostly in a symbolic way but always with wit: few will forget how the scene of ‘a railway station with steam locomotives’ was represented by two Victorian stationmasters marching along in tailcoats with steam coming out of their stovepipe hats.
Musical direction was in the hands of Kathinka Pasveer, whose flute and piccolo playing has contributed so much to so many Stockhausen performances over the years, but who now directs from the sound-projection desk with absolute authority; and one of the important details of any live performance of Stockhausen has always been the sheer gorgeousness of the sound projection, making its impact right from the first moments of the magically lucid Wednesday Greeting. For the unaccompanied voices of the first scene, World Parliament, the mostly young singers of Jeffrey Skidmore’s Birmingham choir Ex Cathedra produced wonders of precision and lucidity (this was apparently the scene that capsized the first planned performance of Mittwoch). Youth was also apparent among the 13 superb players in the scene of the Orchestra Finalists. Playing the Helicopter String Quartet were not the expected and experienced Arditti Quartet but the much younger Elysian Quartet, performing it for the first time and showing great verve. For the last scene, Michaeleon, the usual combination ofStockhausen instruments was also in the hands of younger soloists (though all thoroughly experienced Stockhausen performers), Chloé l’Abbé on flute, Fie Schouten on basset horn, Marco Blaauw on trumpet, Stephen Menotti on trombone and Antonio Pérez Abellán on synthesizer. Here London Voices provided the vocal component, with Michael Leibundgut as the lucid bass soloist.
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