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Jeremy Marchant
Fanfare, November 2011

It was gratifying to see—and hear—Naxos’s first disc of Stockhausen. There’s no doubt that an appearance on this label gives a composer an entrée into a far wider market than most labels can offer. The choice of Mantra for what, I hope, will be a long series was a judicious one: a big work but not massively complex (or expensive) to mount. Xenia Pestova and Pascal Meyer deliver technically excellent, musically rewarding, and committed performances; the essential third person, Jan Panis, in charge of the electronics, provides a rich world of modulated piano sounds…

Allen Gimbel
American Record Guide, March 2011

The “mantra” of Stockhausen’s Mantra (1970) is a serially repeating 13-note row (12 pitches plus a repetition of the first) with articulations attached to each one (the extra pitch allows for an additional articulation). The articulations include pitch repetition (regular, and irregular “Morse code” types), gestures with starting or ending accents, groups around a central note, tremolo, stressed chords, chromatic passing tones (not necessarily adjacent), staccato, trills, sforzando attacks, and arpeggiations. All of these articulations are standard in traditional classical music, but are given “a new lease on life” in the context of Stockhausen serialism.

Although the mantra is constantly present, more than one version of it can be going on at different speeds at the same time, resulting in the sort of repetition found in nature (expressed in mathematics by fractals). The listener can thus choose many ways of listening to the piece, always aware that each repeating articulation is part of a larger series at some level. The piece’s schematic setup is the beginning of what would become known as Stockhausen’s “formula” technique, which would dominate his music for the rest of his life.

The work is scored for two supremely virtuosic pianists, who also play crotales and woodblocks, twirl electronic controls, chant a little gibberish, and create a transcendently “cool” 70s atmosphere. The electronic part has been digitalized for this recording, apparently with the approval of the (late) composer, who worked with Mr Panis on this realization (each pitch of the row as it is unfolded in one of its deeper level versions is given a digital synthesized pitch to react with or against. At the same time the crotales ring out versions of the slow-moving row.) The piece ends with a simple version of the row accompanied by its inversion, a sort of nod to the Goldberg Variations.

These two pianists are superb, and the passage at track 23 is thrilling—a word I wouldn’t normally use in describing Stockhausen’s music.

Jeremy Marchant
Fanfare, March 2011

It is often possible to divide a composer’s oeuvre into a number of phases—often, for some reason, three, Beethoven being the locus classicus. Stockhausen managed to get through something like nine radically different phases between 1950 and 1978, when he started work on Licht. Mantra (1970) is literally a seminal work from that first period of extraordinary creativity and imagination in that it was the first (apart from the very early Formel for orchestra, 1950) to use a formula to drive not only the melodic content of the work but also its deep structure. Mantra is important in considering Stockhausen’s work as a whole because that formula process, in a much-extended version, was the basis of the cycle of seven operas, Licht, which occupied the composer from 1978 to 2003. However, there is no need to load all the weight of what was to follow onto Mantra’s shoulders. It is enough, I believe, to recognize that a listener who recoils from the post-Webernian complexity of, say, Gruppen, on the one hand, and the idea of music in which the only instructions to the players are in the form of text such as “play a vibration in the rhythm of your atoms” on the other (as in From the Seven Days), will find utterly different music in Mantra. This release, on the inexpensive Naxos label, of Mantra is an ideal opportunity for people to experience Stockhausen in full flight of invention, unencumbered by beliefs about other pieces of his music.

Mantra is based on a 12-tone row whose first note is repeated at the end, creating a 13-note formula, or mantra. Stockhausen was careful not to use a term such as “theme” for this because he was insistent that this formula is not developed, merely repeated over and over again, but manipulated so imaginatively and thoroughly that interest is maintained over more than an hour. No notes are added to the mantra theme, let alone is there any accompaniment or decoration. Each pitch has an associated dynamic and characteristic (for the first pitch, periodic repetition at the beginning; for the second, accent at the end; later, a turn around the beginning of the note, and so on). The large-scale structure is one of 13 cycles, each cycle associated with one pitch of the mantra and its associated characteristic. In each cycle, the mantra appears 13 times. The concept is thus like fractal geometry, each bit of the piece containing the whole thing.

Mantra is for two pianos, each player also being equipped with a set of crotales and a woodblock. What makes the sound world of the work so remarkable, however, is that the sound of each piano is fed through its own ring modulator, which mixes it with a sine wave of fixed pitch. In each cycle, the ring modulator is tuned to the pitch associated with that cycle so that a highly subtle scale of distortion is created that rotates as the work progresses through the cycles, favoring one note then another with consonance. It is this use of ring modulation that enables Mantra to transcend its material. Far from being the bright idea that kills some perfectly decent music, it enables the piece to work additionally at several layers that are just about Klangfarbe: the colors of sound itself.

It’s important to see Mantra as more than an extended piece for piano duet. It is, like so much of Stockhausen’s instrumental and chamber music, a piece of theater. Some 20 minutes in, there’s a duel in which the pianists vie to win on a particular high note. And then the crotales, while it is true they have various musical purposes (at the end, both pianists play a furious crescendo on their crotales prior to the final enunciation of the mantra), with the woodblock have a hieratic function, and there’s an influence of Noh theater here. Or, rather, it’s a mock-hieratic one. There is plenty of humor in Mantra and the best performances will bring a smile repeatedly to the listener. Just as when, in Atmen gibt das Leben (Breathing Gives Life) for choir, one of the singers gets hiccups, you are allowed to laugh.

I compared the disc with those of Yvar Mikashoff and Rosalind Bevan (New Albion), and of Alfons and Aloys Kontarsky (Stockhausen Verlag, though I was listening to the original DG vinyl release). Not having listened to the Kontarsky brothers’ reading for some years, I was struck by the amount of fantasy as well as humor they found compared with the other two recordings. And I was struck by the wider, more vivid sound world of their recording. Stockhausen provided the electronics here as well as the sound projection, and the recording must have his imprimatur. That said, there is apparently a need to develop useable electronics that are more up-to-date, and Jan Panis, a former assistant of the composer, has produced them. Sonically, the result is close to the New Albion sound world and entirely acceptable. In any case, the amount of coloration in the piano sound is partly a balance issue, since Stockhausen requires the modulated piano sound to be only slightly louder than the natural sound emanating from the pianos.

A small niggle is that Naxos bands the CD into 26 tracks, without saying where the cycles start (or what these divisions mean). Bar numbers are given but scores are hard to find—I couldn’t get one from the U.K. Stockhausen Society for this review. But Xenia Pestova and Pascal Meyer are on top of the music, their performances are compelling, the sound is excellent, and this is a self-recommending release.

Charles T. Downey
Ionarts, January 2011

In 1969 your moderator was knee-high to a grasshopper, and experimental composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was on a car trip in New England. He heard a melody and wrote it down on an envelope, with the idea that it would be the basis of a musical work, “one single musical figure or formula that would be expanded over a very long period of time,” as he put it in 1971. This theme of 13 notes and a series of other musical parameters became the musical kernel of Stockhausen’s Mantra, a work for two (augmented) pianos in 13 sections that expand and realize that initial melody. Stockhausen’s works list (.PDF file) says that the score calls for two pianists (with wood blocks and antique cymbales, or crotales) plus electronics (2 sine-wave generators, 2 ring modulators, 2-track tape rec., 6 micr., 2 x 2 loudsp., mixing console / sound proj.). The performers also have to shout together at one point. This may seem an odd choice to finish out the Twelve Days of Christmas, but there is something exotic and otherworldly about the piece, as performed in this excellent recent recording, that seemed to fit Three Kings Day.

Stylistically, Stockhausen’s earlier works have the greatest appeal to my ear, where there is still rhythmic pulse and harmonic variety, and not too much outright weirdness: put Mantra into the same category as pleasing works like Tierkreis (1974/75) and the vocal piece Stimmung (1968). Dutch sound technician/projectionist Jan Panis, former assistant to Stockhausen, created the first digital arrangements to create the electronic component of this piece, with the composer’s approval. The sound effects, created by the piano sound being routed through microphones and digital processing before reaching the ears, include echos, distortions, buzzing, ringing, and manipulation that creates something akin to the percussive sounds of a prepared piano or of the gamelan. The result produced by the adventurous Pestova/Meyer Piano Duo, while not recommended for people who get a rash at dissonant or off-putting music, is hypnotic. A fine introduction to Stockhausen and experimental music for anyone interested in such a thing.

Leslie Wright
MusicWeb International, December 2010

This disc will appeal to those with an open mind. If you are used to the Stockhausen of Gruppen, his work for three orchestras or Stimmung, his vocal tour de force, this will seem more organized and easier to grasp.

As Andrew Lewis states in his excellent notes in the CD booklet, Mantra is the first mature example of the composer’s “formula” technique. This technique, more structured and quasi-serialist, was to dominate his oeuvre for the rest of his life. The work is continuous, but the disc is divided into 26 tracks totaling 887 bars of music. The scoring makes interesting and novel use of percussion and electronics as well as electronically transformed piano sounds reminiscent of John Cage’s prepared piano, in addition to those of a normal piano—or in this instance piano duo. At times the work seems almost minimalist with its repetitions, but there is much more variety in Mantra than one associates with the products of Minimalism. The contrasts between the almost static and the dynamic are very telling. There is also some vocal intervention. While the work is rather long, it has enough variety and no little humor to hold one’s attention throughout its 67 minutes. The vocal “howl” in track 20 especially provides some comic relief.

Without access to a score or another recording with which to compare, I find it hard to make a judgment on the performance. However, it sounds convincing to me. The pianists have technique to burn and the recording meshes the electronics with the pianos seamlessly. However, this work really needs to be seen as well as heard, with the two pianists facing each other. The recorded sound itself leaves nothing to be desired. While I don’t know how often I will listen to Mantra, I can state that it is interesting enough that I will want to get to know it better. For a more detailed analysis of the work and its genesis, see Mark Sealey’s review on this website.

Based on the foregoing, I commend this disc to Stockhausen fans and to anyone curious about the 1970s avant-garde.

Liam Cagney, November 2010

Stockhausen’s Mantra was composed in 1970. It was the first piece to be based on the German composer’s formula technique, which subsequently went on to inform all of his later compositional output, most expansively in the Licht opera cycle. This strictly-conceived approach to composition arose after a freer period during the sixties when Stockhausen experimented with open forms, such as the ‘intuitive music’ of the Stockhausen Group, a touring band who performed works by the composer the scores of which were sometimes limited to a short written text or a structural outline. With Mantra, presumably having grown tired of such liberties, Stockhausen returned to a controlled approach.

Mantra is scored for two pianists, calling for a third person as sound projectionist. Throughout, the pianos are subjected to electronic processing in the form of ring modulation, the pianists now and again also striking crotales and woodblocks to enliven the musical texture and create fissures in the piano discourse. The impression in performance is theatrical, the audience witnessing a duel between the pianists. The effect given to the sound by the ring modulation ranges from robotic to luscious, the music sometimes sounding as if heard from the bottom of the ocean, sometimes as if from inside a metal bowl.

The formula technique here works as follows. At the opening there is a bald statement of a thirteen note series, each note of which is assigned a dynamic and a characteristic musical quality (for example, ‘regular repetition’, ‘accent at the end’, and so on). The work that follows is made up of a sequence of thirteen statements of this series, over the course of which the series progressively grows longer and more elaborate, and each of which statements explore one of the different musical qualities. The large-scale form of the work in the end corresponds to the small-scale thirteen-part schema.

You don’t need to follow these technical niceties, though, to enjoy the piece. Whatever cynicism you might have as to such theoretical pretensions, this work is undoubtedly thrilling. Though Mantra is decisively of its time, the lineage it shares with the Austro-Germanic tradition of piano theme and variations, the venerable examples of Bach and Beethoven shining forth, is never far away.

This recording is the first to use digital technology in the rendering of the electronics, the old analogue equipment having since the work’s inception become obsolete, and it features equipment specifically designed by Stockhausen’s former assistant Jan Panis. The Pestova Meyer Piano Duo have been touring this piece over the past few years (they gave a memorable account in Cork a couple of years ago), and here, with a vivid and deep performance, they propel the work into the twenty-first century. At this price the CD is a steal.

Gapplegate Music Review, October 2010

Karlheinz Stockhausen was without doubt an enormously important composer of the last half of the 20th century. If you are reading this you may well know that. He said something after 9–11 that was apparently misquoted and he became anathema to some during the period leading up to his death. We now can put all that behind us. A resurgence in the performance of his works would indicate that it is happening.

There are many aspects to Stockhausen’s music. His music for the pianoforte is very much a central part of it all. The Klavierstuck series and the sprawling two-piano work Mantra would seem to all-but-assure a permanent place in the ranks of the last century’s greatest music titans (though I could go on and talk about some other seminal aspects of his output).

So it seems appropriate that his Mantra has been the center of a new spate of performances and recordings. Xenia Pestova and Pascal Meyer have done a version of the work, recently released as a Naxos CD (Naxos 8.572398).

There are a couple of factors to consider when thinking of this fine new recording. First off, I am reminded of what John Cage said about one of his Variations works after hearing it performed countless times. The gist of his comment was that, as time passed and performances continued, the piece started to transform itself. At first, the notes and silences seemed like isolated punctuations in the fabric of aural life. As further versions came about, the notes came to have a logic not previously noticed. The notes became melody; the combination of notes, harmony. In part that was a matter of the listener’s (Cage’s) perception; but it also appeared that the performers were grasping the score more as music than as avant experiment.

The second thing that comes to mind was a review of Mahler symphonies I read in the New York Times years ago. I forget who wrote it, but he spoke of how Mahler performances, as well as the continued performance of other originally less-known works, could be seen as following a pattern. The more familiar the musicians-conductor-audience were with a work, the slower the tempo of at least some passages. The idea was that now that most everybody was accustomed to the music, it was time to savor it in a more leisurely fashion. As one of my professors used to say, it that is not true, it should be!

All this applies to the new Pestova/Meyer version of Mantra. The original DGG recording of the work by the Kontarsky brothers may be definitive; but the Pestova/Meyer version here generally takes things slower. It is more deliberate. And it perhaps brings out more the quality of the note values in the score. The Kontarsky brothers made the music seem strange; this version makes it seem familiar.

For example, there is towards the end a long and rather exciting passage where the two pianist drive into a long series of endlessly modulating, continuous lines. The Kontarsky brothers took it at a maddening clip, as a cosmic blast of sound. Pestova/Meyer take it slower, almost at a boogie-woogie tempo. And the note values are more specifically articulated at that speed. It is more a savoring of the familiar.

There are listener-perceptual issues involved in this too, as the allusion to Cage’s comment above implied. In 1970, Mantra was at the very edge of the avant garde. Its use of live electronics, its added percussion colors as performed by the pianists, the incorporation of spacial silences, the introduction of repetition…all that seemed vitally avant. Listening to the new version 40 years later, I hear it as much more coherently musical. I get where it is and where it goes much more readily than I did when I first heard it back then. What I hear now reassure me that it is indeed a masterpiece of the era, fully worthy of revival now and appreciation in the years to come.

The excellent performance of the Pestova/Meyer Piano Duo in the Naxos recording helps me get there. It stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the original recording. It creates another space for the work that gives it another life for us in this second decade of the millennium. Bravo for that! And bravo for the recording!

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2010

I have to confess that I enjoyed this disc, which is a enormous admission for one who dislikes Stockhausen and his world of music. Maybe I am mellowing with age, but more likely it comes from the potent advocacy of the Pestova/Meyer Piano Duo. But before I get carried away, let me warn the uninitiated, who have yet to accept Bartók as tuneful, that this should be approached with caution. The beginnings of Mantra are detailed in an accompanying booklet replete with loads of analysis as to how it was constructed and all the other details academics love to read. It only really mattered to them, for it is what we hear that really matters. So we have a stunning duo, of mixed Luxembourg and New Zealand origin, who find their way through a complex score almost extending to seventy minutes. It offers a good deal of performing freedom, though it is that rhythmically and structural organised feel that pleases and interests me. To their input comes the electronic participation of Jan Panis, and maybe now the desire to use these ‘instruments’ to dominate and shock has long since past. His partnership is done with subtlety, often just adding a hint of colour to the music. But of course when electronics are recording electronics we do have a question of balance, and I hope what I am hearing the sounds I would hear in the concert hall. So, I conclude that this old sceptic has been converted. Why not join him?

Blair Sanderson, October 2010

Originating in 1969 with a short melodic fragment that grew into an elaborate piece that runs well over an hour, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Mantra for two pianos and electronics is recognized as one of his major keyboard works and an example of his increasingly liberal use of serial methods. The central idea operates on many levels throughout the composition, and the organization of Stockhausen’s 13-pitch series—a twelve-tone row with the first note repeated at the end—takes place on small and large scales, with some permutations of the motive or “mantra” extending over so much time that their relationships become imperceptible. Yet in spite of its seemingly daunting process and complex structures, Mantra is one of Stockhausen’s more accessible pieces, for his harmonic choices are not especially harsh or tiring on the ear, and the airiness of his textures, the pleasantly blurred electronics, and the many soft, diaphanous tremolo passages make this one of the most attractive late avant-garde compositions. The performance by pianists Xenia Pestova and Pascal Meyer, with former Stockhausen assistant Jan Panis providing the electronics, was supervised by the composer, and the use of digital sound production brings the music up to date for the 21st century.

Mark Sealey
MusicWeb International, October 2010

Stockhausen’s inspiration for Mantra was a tune which he had been humming, almost in ‘free fall’ (“I just let my imagination completely loose”) on a long car journey in 1969 in the USA. A simple figure is repeated many times (there are 26 tracks on this CD; 887 bars) though with great variety and many different moods. It was originally intended for two pianists but with a sound projectionist, whose equipment, it is stipulated, must be completely inconspicuous to any audience present. Indeed, the equipment’s output for the most part is close in timbre to that of the piano…finger bells of equal dynamic to that of the piano around the 320s bars [tr.13] and blocks in the higher 300s, for instance.

It is the variety and approachability of this simple conception of Stockhausen that first strikes the listener—whatever your preconceptions of the composer may be. There are changes in tempo, length of phrasing, in the relative burden of advancing the melody (a simple one, to be sure) by the two pianists (Xenia Pestova, Pascal Meyer) and by Jan Panis (electronics). Not long into the performance you cannot fail to detect a focus, an enthusiasm and commitment for the exploration that characterises this work.

Mantra is also a significant piece in Stockhausen’s career. It represents his first fully scored piece for some time. At the height of his fame, the composer had become more and more disquieted at the ‘debate’, let’s call it, within his Stockhausen Group (and indeed between it and himself) over precisely who was creating the music they performed—so much of what was actually heard relied either on chance or on (only) a structure to be elaborated on. Mantra puts an end to that. The work is also significant in that it represents the start of what was—effectively—Stockhausen’s last compositional phase: his ‘formula’ technique.

Its simplicity and concentric nature remind one of some of the ideas of Feldman; though Mantra seems to have much more energy. Less energy than Ives, though he’s present in Mantra’s pages as well. The fragmentation of Crumb runs through Mantra too. Some dozen and a half of the 26 groups of bars, which range in length from 22 seconds to five and a half minutes, have ‘titles’—usually descriptions of how they are to be played…‘Sehr langsam’ (‘Very slowly’); ‘Metallic chords’; ‘Stimmen’ (‘voices’); ‘Gamelan-like’ and so on.

These are all characteristics that have a strong theatrical flavour. So is the entire piece—in conception and execution: the two pianists face each other engaged in far more than merely playing the same work. The performance can assume the qualities of a duel, of intense collaboration, even of a comedic double act. Neither Xenia Pestova (from New Zealand and Canada) nor Pascal Meyer (Luxembourg) has other recordings to their credit. But they approach this interesting music with real flair and directness. Indeed, precision and concentration are vital if they are to convey the essence of the repetitions—which they do from first bar to last. Although the result is of measured advocacy on their part, it’s neither self-conscious not obtrusive. Their playing is musical first and last.

Panis’ role is essential too: he worked extensively with Stockhausen. And indeed received the composer’s approval for the digital equipment which he had to design once the analogue equipment necessary to produce the ring modulation was no longer available.

A highly satisfactory and technically, expressively and interpretatively very pleasing realisation of a key work by Stockhausen, then. There are others in the current catalogue—that from 1994 by Yvar Mikhashoff,  Rosalind Bevan and Ole Orsted on New Albion 25 would probably be the best comparison CD. For sheer energy and well-directed energy at that, and a controlled power which truly places our listening experience as close to the centre of the composer’s conception as any, this latest Naxos release can be commended. The recording and acoustic are clean and uncluttered. The booklet contains much useful material to help understand the context and strengths of what is a really convincing piece by Stockhausen.

Rick Anderson
Baker & Taylor CD Hotlist, October 2010

Mantra was written after a long period during which Karlheinz Stockhausen had traveled with an ensemble playing largely improvised music; it was his first fully-notated piece in a long time, though it retains significant elements of improvisation. It is written for two pianos, percussion, and electronics (primarily ring modulators), which are wielded on this recording by the late composer’s former assistant, Jan Panis. The pianos are played by an excellent young duo, and the music is by turns whimsical, jagged, and reflective, but never boring. Recommended.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group