About this Recording
8.572635 - KAGEL, M.: Konzert (Das) / Phantasiestuck / Pan (M. Faust, Alvares, Ensemble Contrasts, R. HP Platz, Sinfonia Finlandia Jyvaskyla, P. Gallois)

Mauricio Kagel (1931–2008)
Das Konzert • Phantasiestück • Pan


Born in Buenos Aires on 24 December 1931, Mauricio Kagel was self-taught as a composer, taking his degree in philosophy and literature at the University of Buenos Aires. From his earliest pieces (around 1950), he was actively opposed to the neo-classical Conservatism openly favoured by the Perón government, while an antiestablishment intent is similarly evident in the numerous articles and reviews that were written for the journal Nueva Visión. Kagel headed to West Germany on a DAAD scholarship in 1957, soon settling in Cologne, where he worked with all the main new music organizations and performing bodies. He was active as a conductor, writer and teacher, and his honours included the Mozart Medal of Frankfurt, Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and Bundesverdienst Orden First Class, as well as membership of the Berlin Academy of Arts. Retrospectives of his music and films have been held throughout Europe and also in North America. Kagel died in Cologne on 18 September 2008.

Although earlier mature pieces such as the String Sextet (1953), the choral Anagrama (1957) and the orchestral Heterophonie (1961), are marked by the influence of avant-garde figures such as Boulez and Stockhausen, Kagel’s aesthetic was already one that combined precisely organized elements with others that undermined such precision in a determined examination of the rôle of ‘control’ in art and, by extension, in society. The early 1960s saw the advent of his concept of ‘instrumental theatre’, where sound itself becomes subject to the presence of the performers in acting out a dramatic context for the work to take place. Around the same time, he embarked on a series of films where music and vision are combined from new and intriguing perspectives, not least Ludwig Van (1969), a bicentennial ‘homage’ to Beethoven that questions the roles of tradition and the performer, with pertinent implications for the development of the classical music industry.

During the 1980s Kagel’s music underwent various changes, in line with his incorporating more conventional musical notation, as well as his recourse to more traditional harmonic and tonal elements. Thus Sankt-Bach-Passion (1985) is more of a continuation, rather than a rejection, of the German sacred choral tradition, while instrumental works such as the First Piano Trio (1985) and the Third String Quartet (1987) similarly draw on the lineage of Austro-German classicism for their exploration of formal and expressive tenets: in other words, asking how might it be possible to essay such pieces without either repudiating or succumbing to the legacy of the musical past. Such an approach inevitably led to charges of Kagel’s having embraced the thinking of post-Modernism, in line with many other composers from his generation, but the subversive and questioning nature of his stance, as was evident in the orchestral Three Etudes (1996), prevented any surrender to mere Nostalgia.

It is in such a context that the works on this disc should be understood. While each can be heard as an abstract and self-consistent entity, an extra-musical dimension is rarely absent. How each of these ‘situations’ is related to, and determines an understanding of, the piece in question is for each listener to decide. Composed during 2001–02, Das Konzert is Kagel’s typically oblique response to writing a flute concerto—though in this instance the nominal accompaniment of harp, strings and percussion is conceived on an equal basis with the solo part, while the musical content is shot through with myriad allusions to an idealized Romanticism which, ironically enough, had yielded few if any equivalent pieces of comparable worth. It is in the bridging between past and present that this singular piece—whose single movement comprises numerous intersecting sections—takes on its special significance even when assessed within the ambivalent perspective of the composer’s later output.

Over pizzicato rhythms and gentle harmonic clusters, the flute unfolds a capricious yet evocative melodic line that weaves its way in and out of the strings’ translucent backdrop. The on-going contribution from tom-toms and woodblock adds to the variety of the overall texture, while the strings form ghostly ostinato patterns which gradually assume a more openly expressive manner as the soloist has recourse to flutter-tonging among other playing techniques. At around the ten-minute mark, the music becomes more animated as strings and percussion goad the soloist into flightier asides that, in turn, wind down to a lilting passage with harp and percussion to the fore. This leads into what might be thought the work’s climactic section—soloist and strings trading exchanges with abandon, before heading into a spectral passage dominated by the resonance of tuned percussion. Gongs and pizzicato strings alternate as the music subsides into an even sparser section, picking up to the sound of harp and percussion before accelerating into the hectic confrontation of soloist and strings that is abruptly curtailed—leaving the former to resume a dialogue that once again surges onward to see the whole work home with a rapid alternation of forces and a last breathless solo flourish.

Schumann became a potent inspiration for Kagel, in terms of the highly speculative Romanticism embodied in his musical language as well as his distinctive approach to matters of form. Hence Phantasiestück, composed during 1987–88 and which exists in versions for flute and piano or as accompanied by an instrumental ensemble. The ‘solo’ version sets off with a capering manner with flute and piano breezily exchanging rhythmic gestures. There follows a slower section in which the dialogue is more plaintive, followed by a martial passage with the flute blowing into and the pianist tapping on the outside of their respective instruments. Next comes a more conventional yet highly appealing dialogue where the composer’s trademark wit can be heard at its keenest, gradually thinning out to leave quietly syncopated gestures on piano to which the flute responds with a reticence that, in its turn, makes way for an increasingly hectic interplay that breaks off to leave the reticent gestures much as before. A brief passage of virtual breathing from the flute leads into the final section, in which the two instruments equably pursue each other in a melody such as could almost have a folk or traditional source, the music gradually taking on an expressive poise that sees the work conclude in a mood of barely ruffled calm.

Written in 1985, at much the same time that Kagel completed his massive Sankt-Bach-Passion, Pan is a true jeu d’espirit, yet one whose engaging humour does not obscure a deeper connection with the chamber-music genre—coming as it does between the seminal First Piano Trio and the large-scale Third String Quartet. A nonchalant gesture from piccolo is set in an imaginative context by string quartet, the piece unfolding as a series of variants (rather than variations as such) on its initial idea that are pensive and animated by turns—before a magical interplay of piccolo tones and string harmonics makes way for the scampering final bars.

In the ‘ensemble’ version of Phantasiestück, the overall form remains identical, but the range of expression is now greater given the timbral and textural variety afforded by the presence of string quartet and clarinet. This is especially noticeable in more inward passages, where the additional instruments open out the music’s spatial aspect as well as providing greater tonal allure. Nowhere more than in the final section, where the folk-like melody outlined by flute and piano is heard in sharper relief—bringing the music into closer alignment with the nineteenth-century archetypes that Kagel resourcefully evokes in his later works.

Richard Whitehouse

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