Concert review

 A Mauricio Kagel Evening

Almeida Theatre, Islington, London

Friday 19th July 1999

It's good that the satellite events around the Almeida Theatre's opera season continue to expand, almost compensating for the Almeida Festival, which use to enthral punters up until its demise in 1991. This year's combined sequence of activities, between the Almeida Theatre and East London's Hoxton New Music Days, was of value in bringing several contemporary European composers to the attention of London audiences. At a time when the British scene is tending to polarise between dour neo-modernism and would-be-slick post-minimalism, the music of left-fielders such as Italian Salvatore Sciarrino (b 1947) and Mauricio Kagel (b 1931), Argentinian-born but resident in Cologne for many years, comes as a welcome corrective.

Sciarrino's portrait concert took place in the Quaker-style Hoxton Hall: a more unlikely contrast with the hip-hop coming 'from the street' is difficult to imagine, as the Italian composer's sleight-of-hand elusiveness thrives on the anticipation of a silent but 'listening' audience. Suffice to say that the well-chosen programme of original works and arrangements left those present surprised and intrigued. Try the succinct but atmospheric Autoritratto della notte (Deutsche Grammophon 449 215-2GH purchase) to see if you're similarly affected.

Although a good deal more demonstrative in manner, Kagel's output has a similar playing with expectations that can easily fall foul of empirical British sensibilities. So it made sense to concentrate on the overtly visual theatre pieces, where there's comparatively little room for ambiguity in the composer's intentions. With its silent musicians made fugitives from authority, who could fail to miss the point of Con Voce's totalitarian warnings? The extended mime of Zwei Akte drove home its message of lost innocence at the risk of overkill: how many accumulated layers of clothing, from a beginning of total nudity, were strictly necessary to represent non-communication become attrition become aggression? In as much as it gave the sterling harp and saxophone work of Lucy Wakeford and Gareth Brady something to play against, maybe 40 minutes was justified after all?

Three extracts from the amorphous theatre-kit Rrrrrrr... made a bitty impression, although the part-humorous, part-reverential evocation of Paul Robeson was wonderfully realised by Richard Jackson. The evening's virtuoso presentation, however, came from Tim Hopkins, as the man-of-the-people compère in Présentation. Over Paul McGrath's maniacally futile piano backdrop, he runs the gamut of responses - flawed, exasperated then resigned - as the star billing fails to materialise. And the point of the exercise: When does presentation become substance? In a culture which increasingly seems unwilling or unable to differentiate between the two, Kagel's slapstick parable has an uncomfortable ring of truth.

Kagel is relatively well represented on CD these days. Peter Woolf writes about Rrrrrrr.... and Zwei Akte below. For purely concert music, try the Arditti Quartet's excellent disc of the first three string quartets (Disques Montaigne (Auvidis) WMD MO 789004 purchase); the third of these, expansive but compelling, is a work in the classical tradition, far removed from the theatrical high jinx for which Kagel remains best known. Then there's 1898, a haunting and often amusing commemoration of Deutsche Grammophon's 75th anniversary in 1973, just reissued at mid-price with the anarchic hilarity of Music for Renaissance Instruments (DG 459 570-2GTX) purchase.

All in all, then, a good night out - entertaining and illuminating in equal measure. Let's hope this 'alternative' side of the latter-day Almeida festival just keeps on growing.


Richard Whitehouse

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------CD CD Review

Mauricio Kagel 2 Zwei Akte; Rrrrrr…: 5 Jazz Pieces; Blue's blue Mauricio Kagel (voice & glass trumpet) Michael Reissler (clarinets and saxophones) Brigitte Sylvestre (harp).Geoffry Wharton (violin) Theodor Ross (guitar).Kristi Becker (piano) Disques Montaigne CD 782003



Born in Buenos Aires and living in Europe since 1957, Mauricio Kagel became Professor of New Music Theatre in Cologne in 1974 and has often brought his music theatre works to UK (Huddersfield and Almeida Festivals, South Bank Centre). Zwei Akte (1989) [q.v. Seen & Heard, Richard Whitehouse's review of a July 1999 performance in London] has the saxophone and harp (both employing extended techniques) exploring the changing roles assumed by the male and female protagonists on stage; brimming with imagination, sustained for half an hour. The 6 short jazz pieces come from a collection of 41 pieces all beginning with the letter R, together comprising a Radiophantasie 'Rrrrrrr…'. John Blue was a jazz singer whose recordings captivated Kagel in boyhood and led him into playing jazz. In Kagel's musico-ethnological reconstruction he sits with his colleagues listening to an ancient, scratched record of John singing All is blue on Blue's lips and they indulge in imitative improvisation "like a self-replenishing pantry at the open grave of acoustic archaeology", which I found strangely absorbing and moving.

A companion CD Kagel 1 (Auvidis Montaigne MO789004 purchase) is recommended by Richard Whitehouse in his concert review; besides the 3 String Quartets (Arditti Quartet) it includes a unique quintet, Pan for piccolo and string quartet. The performances, presentation and production of both these CDs are superb.


Peter Grahame Woolf

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