While the BBC was launching Proms 2018, and Simon Rattle was conducting Mahler 9 with the LSO and Kenneth Woods dealing into Americana ‘18 at St John’s (to name just three events in London on this evening), Colin Currie and Nicolas Hodges were gracing the Queen Elizabeth Hall with their brand of pianistic and percussive magic. The first half was a neatly constructed and unbroken thirty-minute sequence (a request for no applause duly observed) of short pieces by Birtwistle, Feldman and Stockhausen; the second half, a little longer, consisted of the latter’s Kontakte.
Intrada (2017) by Harrison Birtwistle (in attendance) bookended the first half, music of chimes and jaggedness, ricochets, flurries, and a gathering of momentum and intensity; it also displayed an immediate close rapport and technical mastery between Currie and Hodges. The pianist had the next two segments. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstück V (1954, of ten such Piano Pieces) explores the piano’s possibilities in busy and volatile terms, subtle too, rigorous music for its own sake; whereas Birtwistle’s Variations from the Golden Mountain (2014) may have a pictorial title but is routed in a time when the composer had been exploring Bach’s Goldberg Variations; even so it is possible to hear thunder and bells as part of a beguiling piece that begins with a rapid flourish and then searches expressively for sonorous textures and rich chords. Now it was Currie’s solo spot, Morton Feldman’s The King of Denmark (1964) – Christian X, who during the Nazi occupation of his country offered “quiet resistance”. Feldman’s remarkable piece gives the player a big say in what instruments are used – Currie offering a mix of skin, metal and wood – but is required to use only fingers and nails; the result here was of extraordinary refinement and delicacy throughout – somewhere around pppppp – yet every sound was meaningful and the air was suspense-filled. Returning to the opening duo-attack of Intrada was almost apocalyptic in comparison, and it was good to have a second performance.
Stockhausen completed Kontakte (Contacts) in 1960. It’s for piano, percussion and tape. To say the result is vivid would be an understatement, the live music accentuated by electronics – brilliantly handled in real time by Ian Dearden – his credit omitted from the programme, which also said it was Tuesday! – the gaseous, glutinous, eerie and twittering sounds (c/o Stockhausen’s studio back then) emerging not from individual speakers (front-of-stage and ceiling-hanging), which can be disconcertingly too specific, but from all-around, enveloping us in a sense of primordial ritual ... or intergalactic plotting ... and was fascinating in itself – the only aural black-spot being someone’s pesky mobile going off, and which sounded really silly as well as irritating amidst Stockhausen’s now-ancient concoctions. But the bigger picture was the music and the experience, enhanced by the performers’ coordination, virtuosity (Hodges as good a percussionist as he is a pianist), focussed preparation and energetic commitment. Over thirty-five minutes one was aware of an exciting progression through sometimes-mysterious realms to a sense of catastrophe (that’s what I heard anyway) – the climactic gongs had to be heard to be believed, Hodges leaving his piano to join Currie for some GBH on the suspended plates – before winding down to a spellbinding and long-held silence.