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Stockhausen: Mantra

Pestova/Meyer Piano Duo & Jan Panis (electronics)

Naxos 8.572398 [68 mins]

Stockhausen's Mantra (1970) for two pianists and electronic ring modulation looks set to become one of the most enduring of the composer's earlier works.

Here is a first digital recording, with the electronic effects, which subtly and sometimes astringently enhance the piano timbres, also achieved digitally.

The documentation is thorough, detailing and discussing the "thirteen characteristics" in this example of Stockhausen's 'formula technique', and the disc is helpfully supplied with 26 tracks with bar numbers for collectors who have access to the score - that is, all visitors to Musical Pointers ! - as it can be downloaded free and quite easily... [give it a little time to upload, though!]

Following this performance with the score up on line is a humbling experience but has been a very rewarding one.

If you get lost, as I did quickly, concentrate at first on the bars in slow tempo, with your iTunes listing open on the screen alongside the score. It is unbelievably complex, but followable; it leaves me thinking that critical reviews for the most part must be no more than impressionistic "opinions".

As often (with classical music too) one is left feeling that performers and musicologists are perhaps the only ones who can give valuable criticisms of recorded performances? And that mastering such a work as Mantra is a nearly superhuman skill.

I am lost in admiration for the brains and collective input of pianists, electronic engineer and the recording team who have collaborated in putting Mantra for 2010 on disc and on the internet! And for c. £5; ridiculous !

There seem to be some four or more versions available to purchase; I am not foolhardy enough to venture on comparisons, but am mortified to discover that I missed the most recent performance of Mantra in London, on 20 September at Kings Place.

Peter Grahame Woolf

See also The Guardian's review of the Naxos CD

And from Tim Rushford-Johnson on this month's performance of Mantra in London: - - That brilliant string of pearls. Mantra, for two pianists prosthetically extended with percussion, electronics and voice, is one of the later greats. A 70-minute magnification of serialism’s two conflicting realities: perpetual change and perpetual homogeneity. The 12-note series (plus a recapitulatory 13th) is blown up to 13 statements of the ‘mantra’ formula - - the composer uses the almost ritualistic returns to very basic materials in order to open doorways from the prosaic and academic into the real and global. So the ring-modulated drifts surrounding a piano chord might admit a passage of imitation Javanese gamelan; or repeating pulses admit a glimpse of Japanese Noh theatre. At one striking moment those repeating pulses in the piano fracture into both morse code transmissions and ritual chimes.

Holding all of this together, while remaining sensitive both to the piece’s moments of comedy and its seriousness of intent, must be a huge challenge. Chadwick and Knoop were more than a match for it, especially in respect of Mantra‘s extraordinary imaginative scope. It is, still, music of a strange flatness, somehow suppressed even as it explodes galaxies of sound around the monochromaticism of a piano duet. That tension is key: it’s what keeps you listening and it’s how Stockhausen’s music achieves its strange drama.