Concert Review

It gives me great pleasure to welcome to the Seen&Heard team Hans-Theodor Wohlfahrt, distinguished UK music correspondent of many European publications, including Neue Zeitschrift für Musik; Neue Züricher Zeitung and Der Standard (Vienna). Theo intends that his involvement will "circle around the unknown, around events I travel to, around composers I feel should be known, and around positive and negative trends". His contributions will enhance the international orientation of S&H, first demonstrated in our coverage of the Strasbourg Musica99 festival.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Mauricio Kagel Music of the Bizarre South Bank Centre 13 Oct. & 2 Nov. '99.

London Sinfonietta cond. Oliver Knussen and Reinbert de Leeuw, with soloists.

With two concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall the London Sinfonietta provided the platform for a miniature retrospective of Mauricio Kagel, the Argentine composer who, since his arrival in Germany in 1957, is firmly based in Cologne. Kagel certainly does not suffer from overexposure in the UK. Nevertheless, some of his works are played from time to time with variable success (see S&H July 1999, A Mauricio Kagel evening).

I felt sad about the poor attendance at both events, which said much about the contemporary music audience here. From my observation over the years it seems not so open-minded as one would wish, but very much split into different camps and followers of specific composers.

Mauricio Kagel' s music does not fit any perspective; it is unique in its divergence and wants to be heard and observed without any reservations. The risks he takes are intentional and never-ending. Each performance is a risk in itself.

What to make of a concert which breaks deliberately with everything possible, which assembles incommensurable magnitudes, which irritates by being double-bottomed to various degrees, which engages in surrealism, parody, collage, cabaret, black theatre and nonsense? Kagel asks his audience to follow him unconditionally, to accept all kinds of contradictions. He hates any continuity and formal consistency. "It has always been my intention to tie together as many situations as possible. From a work of art I demand that it incorporates boundless dimensions. I do not like pedagogical works, because I mistrust the mere practical application. I prefer to create works as complex as possible, which allow everybody to find one' s own very personal relationship and which allow me to see them with fresh eyes even years after. I do not want anything final and under no circumstances I want any model; models - that is what I hate."

Each interpretation of a work by Kagel only lives up to its expectations fully when he has the chance to work with the musicians, to explain his intentions and to demonstrate the theatrical effects. No notation could ever incorporate all the information necessary to translate his multiple points of view. His diverse visions are not only bizarre and provocative, they are accessible and a lot of fun, as long as one follows them unbiased.

The first concert had indeed the advantage of Kagel's presence, which gave the occasion its flair of authenticity. Match (1965), a dialogue for two celli (Anssi Kartunen & Sally Pendlebury) with percussionist David Hockings, who 'played' the umpire, reminded me of those extremely serious, but also very entertaining, musical happenings with John Cage and friends in the 60s. It is not only a match in sounds, but also in physical reactions, keeping the umpire busy.

Lieuwe Visser (Bass) was the soloist in Fürst Igor, Strawinsky (1982), and Kagel's three-dimensional tribute on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Strawinsky's death. Based on the original Russian text of Prince Igor' s aria from the second act of Borodin's opera, it deals simultaneously with the imprisonment in exile of Prince Igor, the emigrant Strawinsky and the experiences of the Argentinean, Mauricio Kagel, in his self-imposed German exile. Even in this piece, theatrical effects play an important part and create an atmosphere of ambiguity.

After the interval, Oliver Knussen conducted Kantrimiusik (1973-5), one of Kagel' s most distinctive confrontation with folk music and its misuse. "How often one regrets the fate of folklore in being obliged to serve the community as interpreter and entertainer simultaneously." The more than adequate soloists were soprano Angela Tunstall, mezzo Susan Bickley and the tenor Alan Belk. Those eight movements and seven song interludes, to collages of letters or bizarre word combinations, are a diabolic satire, which also allows space for bitter-sweet humour. The whole evening had been an entire delight.

The second programme was devoted to a rare performance of all the eight movements of the cycle The Compass Rose (1988-94). The instrumentation for clarinet, piano, harmonium, two violins, viola, cello, double bass and a huge percussion section challenges Kagel' s survey of the various compass directions and his very personal views. Each section lasts between 6 and 21 minutes, whereby some are heavily overstretched. Kagel' s intellectual thoughts, printed in the programme book, are certainly interesting, but were no compensation for the absence of the composer.

Despite the experienced Dutch conductor Reinbert de Leeuw being in charge, I felt for once uncomfortable with the members of the London Sinfonietta, without questioning their unchallengeable musicianship. They put all their energy into the score, but the vital theatrical element was either not convincing enough or totally missing - with the exception of the percussion player David Hockings. He worked like the most precise maniac, using more than a hundred known and newly invented percussion instruments, as well as playing all sorts of folk flutes and the Jew' s harp. In the final moments of The Compass Rose, and exactly in time with the conductor's rapid beat, he swung an axe again and again, splitting a huge tree trunk into two and covering the musicians with splinters! Why not? The effect sounded all right and was well devised.

CD suggestion: Fürst Igor is included on Accord 201262, with Finale and Vox Humana? in which the narrator is Mauricio Kagel.

Hans-Theodor Wohlfahrt

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