Impressions from the world premiere of
The world premiere took place in Amsterdam, Concertgebouw, in the context of the VARA-Matinee, November 9, 2002, 2.15 p.m.
The work is for a capella choir (7 groups), duration ca. 40 min
Commission and performance by the Groot Omroepkoor (Chief conductor Simon Halsey)
Rehearsal: James Wood, David Lawrence and Darius Battiwalla
Conductor: James Wood
Guest soloists: Isolde Siebert (soprano), Janet Collins (alto), Hubert Mayer (tenor), Andreas Fischer (bass)
Stage director: Machteld van Bronkhorst
From the very good text in the program booklet by Christiane Schima (Dutch, translation by me):
<<ENGEL-PROZESSIONEN constitutes the second part of SONNTAG aus LICHT: the day of the mystical union of Michael and Eve. The work, written as commission from the Matinee for the Groot Omroepkoor (the Great Broadcast Choir), has developed into a space composition wherein seven choirs – each one of them representing one day of the week and singing texts in seven languages – are distributed across the space. Stockhausen:"Seven choirs of angels stand at seven points of the compass grouped around the audience and they move bit by bit in processions through space; they cross the middle one by one and towards the end, they get together. In the meantime they bring lillies in all colors to a heap of flowers in the middle" (in this performance to the podium). The choirs one through six are located in the hall, corresponding to their function and meaning in the opera: Angels of the Water (MONDAY from LIGHT), Angels of the Earth (TUESDAY from LIGHT), Angels of Life (WEDNESDAY from LIGHT), Angels of Music (THURSDAY from LIGHT), Angels of Light (FRIDAY from LIGHT), Angels of Heaven (SATURDAY from LIGHT). Those choirs sing – in the sequence of their listing – in Hindi, Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic and Kishwahili. The seventh choir that consists of soloists – Angels of Joy (SUNDAY from LIGHT) – is located on an eye-catching spot; on the balcony or, as at the end, on the podium. This choir sings in German. The placement and movement of the choirs through space, the symbolic gestures of the performers and the music all follow a sophisticated plan.
The composition is based on the 'superformula', from which the three melodic formulas of the main persons in the entire opera – Michael, Eve and Lucifer – are deduced. In ENGEL-PROZESSIONEN Lucifer however does not act a part. Stockhausen: "Each choir of angels is composed in two-voice polyphony, with the Eve-formula in the upper voice and the Michael-formula in the lower voice [...]. A tutti-choir, placed on the sidewalls of the auditorium, sings the notes of the Michael-formula and the Eve-formula in a long-drawn out way [...]">>
The choir groups wear robes in the following colors:
Angels of the Water (MONDAY from LIGHT), light green
Angels of the Earth (TUESDAY from LIGHT), red
Angels of Life (WEDNESDAY from LIGHT), yellow
Angels of Music (THURSDAY from LIGHT), blue
Angels of Light (FRIDAY from LIGHT), orange
Angels of Heaven (SATURDAY from LIGHT), dark blue
Angels of Joy (SUNDAY from LIGHT) – soloists, gold
All singers had flowers (irises) attached to the back of their robes at the height of their right shoulderblades
The tutti-choir comprises 6 singers four each of the 4 voice registers (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), 24 voices total; some of the other choir groups (6 singers each, except the group of 4 soloists) comprise a single voice register (i.e. they are a group of sopranos, or a group of tenors etc.), some are mixed.
Please keep in mind that this, necessarily, is a report on first impressions: In my regular reviews my views on a work are "finalized" by many repeated listenings, and after repeated re-writing of my observations between listenings. Once I will have the opportunity of listening to this work on CD as well, my views may very well be modified to some extent, and certainly become more refined.
The work has been recorded, an 8-channel tape will be mixed and from there the wide-panorama stereo mix for the CD will take place.
The concert consisted of two performances of the work, with a break in between. The second performance, after the break, was introduced by Stockhausen. The hall was sold-out, and amazingly, almost all people stayed for the second perfomance of the work! Thus, also from this you may deduce that it surely must have been good, if they all wanted to hear it a second time. For my wife and me, the fact that the work was repeated in the same concert (finally someone brought this old, wonderful idea to realization) was actually a determining factor in the decision to attend this world premiere, since we had to travel far for this.
Since I love Stockhausen's choral writing, also – and maybe especially – the more recent one from works like MONTAG aus LICHT and WELT-PARLAMENT, I came with extremely high expectations. And no, these were not disappointed!
Already the very beginning captured me completely, mesmerizing as it was in its beauty. A male choir group sang with wonderful harmonies, and those in turn were polyphonically counterbalanced, with additional enrichment of harmony, by the voice of the solo soprano.
Amazingly, the harmonies in the work sounded completely open and with a transparency as I rarely have encountered before.
When several solo voices sing in harmony, sometimes the spectra of the resulting chords allow for every note to be distinctly heard as such. In contrast to that situation, in choral music usually the individual notes more blend together, in such a way that a chord is heard as a compact entity – that of course holds the most for voices in the same register range (e.g. a group of sopranos, a group of altos etc.). Analysis certainly allows for hearing which notes comprise a chord, but the individual notes do not stand out as such. In modern, more dissonant, choral music this phenomenon may at times arrive at its most extreme: the creation of an impenetrable "wall of sound".
Now experience ENGEL-PROZESSIONEN: here, even though the harmonies sometimes are more dissonant than in traditional music (albeit never "modernistic", and strangely always "harmonious" sounding), there is a miraculous see-through quality of harmony that even exceeds also that of traditional choral music, and comes closer to the above described situation found with several solo voices. You could with great ease listen into the inner spectrum of a chord. Certainly, in the work there is solistic singing, and also singing in small groups, but even when small groups of singers are employed in other works, there I hardly have heard such harmonic transparency. Furthermore, the transparency is maintained also when several choral groups are heard simultaneously, and even in the "big" tutti. The individual notes seem to distinguish themselves from the chords like distinct rays of light with different colors, and the rainbow-like effect is of a wondrous and exquisite beauty. The richness of the chords seemed to be enhanced by that as well. The harmonic transparency also allowed for individual elements of consonance and dissonance to be heard simultaneously in a way I rarely have experienced before in choral music. – Even more harmonic opening-up could be experienced when, with similar vocal gestures, one choir group overlapped with another one in a delayed fashion.
It is not clear to me how exactly all this transparency is achieved in the work; the phenomenon is maintained also between different voices of one register range (e.g. a group of tenors), thus the frequent interaction between different voice registers and spreading of chords over a wide register range, which is heard in the work as well, cannot fully explain it – and despite their complexity, the transparency of the textures created by those interactions is highly unusual as well. Rather I suspect that part of the secret is that Stockhausen has found how he can employ differences in sound color within one voice register – created by the vocal textures in connection with the pitches that are sung – in a very specific and controlled way to achieve such an effect (this could also apply for enhancement of differences in sound color of different voice registers). That might not be completely surprising given that composition of sound color, timbre composition, has been a field of great interest and achievement of the composer throughout his career.
The gestures of voice motion reminded me somewhat in their character and extraordinary dynamism of those in WELT-PARLAMENT, the a capella scene from MITTWOCH (1995), even though many of the gestures seemed new. There was always complexity and density in gestures, since the two-voice polyphony within the choral groups mostly used gestures in each strand that were quite contrasting with each other. The work also was a veritable feast of simultaneous different and everchanging time-layers (different apparent speeds and character of musical motion; this goes far beyond just the issue of metronomic tempi). In the also complex WELT-PARLAMENT there is, with exception of a few new beginnings, a thread of large dramatic motion along which the music often rather gradually permutates in its gestural language(s). In contrast, the musical thread in ENGEL-PROZESSIONEN seemed to be spun differently. Even though it flowed into an apotheotic finale, the musical line reminded me more of pure moment-form, a form important in the composer's music since about 1960, see my review of MOMENTE. The moments seemed marked by the switching of choral groups, or of combinations between the groups, as well as by momentary silences only broken by a soft-singing tutti-choir (see below). Such switching, which took place quite often, mostly was accompanied by switching to another group of vocal gestures as well, and the work thus seemed a rich stream through a series of caleidoscopic changes. "Melting" of one choir group into tutti of another group (other groups) could be sometimes staggeringly beautiful.
The sound envelopes created by the synergy between harmonies and voice motion were often of a novel beauty and strength of invention that made my head shake in disbelief – I listened to them with a mixture of excitement and utmost pleasure.
The magic was amplified by the harmonic carpet rolled out by a tutti-choir; that choir stood with their back to the walls of the hall, that way surrounding the audience, and sang "the notes of the Michael-formula and the Eve-formula in a long-drawn out way" (Stockhausen, see above). I suppose that the choir sings the notes of the formulas spread out over the entire duration of the work, as would be according to the common compositional proceedings in LICHT. Tongue-clicking, as part of the formulas, was also heard. The choir provided continuum in the music when the other choir groups were silent – such pauses of the other choir groups also enhanced the impression of moment-form, with moments often well-separated from each other.
The tutti-choir sung very softly, dramatically and beautifully enhancing the dynamic spectrum of the work. Dynamics of singing of the six other choir groups usually avoided extremes; the singing seemed to be quite even-tempered in volume. However, the overall dynamics were variable nonetheless – that was given by the diverse combinations of choral groups, up to the final tutti of all groups together.
Dynamics of the choir groups also varied considerably by the fact that, heard from a given seating position in the hall, some choral groups sounded more distant, and thus softer, than others. That also varied since the choir groups were not fixed in space but changed positions during the performance. ENGEL-PROZESSIONEN clearly is, to a degree of high importance, composed as space music. The variable positions in space of the choral groups enhanced the aural experience considerably, and the game near-distant of the diverse choral sounds reminded me of GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE, where such a game near vs. far is of high importance for the music as well.
The variable spatial distribution of the singers also provided an everchanging feast of colors.
The single-colored costumes were of such exquisite and tasteful beauty as I seldom have experienced (my wife also very much loved the colors), and seeing all the different colors provided additional depth to the overall richness, almost voluptuousness, of the aural experience. It was a totally enveloping feast for the senses.
During the work "the singers bring lillies in all colors to a heap of flowers in the middle" (Stockhausen, see above). The program booklet, as quoted, says that in this performance they brought the flowers to the podium – I completely missed this, being submerged in the music as I was. Time flew by for me, at (towards) the end of both performances I was rather disappointed that the 40 or so minutes were already over.
For the first performance we sat in the front, but during the second performance we sat further back in the hall, and the aural perspective changed completely. At first I was disappointed that I did not hear the textures at the beginning as clearly as the first time (the first choir group and soloist stood at the front), but later was rewarded by added aural bliss when much of the musical happening took place closer to where we sat (my wife much preferred that spot anyway). Thus, every time you hear a different performance, depending on where you sit.
At the end of the work, all choir groups came together in the middle of the hall, and sang as tutti, in German. The harmonic magic celebrated its last, ultimate triumph – also here, in this relatively massive event, the transparency remained. The beautiful collective singing of the four soloists above the choral tutti was the icing on the cake.
After the break, before the second performance, Stockhausen talked about the work, mostly in English (with one or two German sentences at the beginning that he translated). His speech was likable, simple and brief, and raised a few smiles at appropriate moments. He thanked the performers for an "extraordinarily harmonious collaboration" – the quality of the performances was brilliant and seemed almost superhuman (total rehearsal time was 5 weeks!). His speech concluded with approximately the words "now you have experienced how angels sing, and maybe one day you will join them".
Applause after the performances was warm and extended, with several outbreaks of enthusiasm during the appearance of the soloists, the conductor and especially the composer, naturally more so after the second performance. Alas I was not able to read reviews in the Dutch newspapers since we had to head back home after the concert, but I have heard from someone that all the reviews he had read were "extremely enthusiastic". In the meantime I did find one on the internet, from the Haagse Courant: "Stockhausen lets his angels sing in a perfect and fascinating way".
As for a summary of my own first impressions: with amazing and authoritative ease, this must be one of the greatest, and most certainly richest, compositions for choir or with choir that I have heard.
November 21, 2002
Addendum January 2003:
Recent listening to the tape of the radio broadcast has led me to question my initial impressions of the large-scale form of ENGEL-PROZESSIONEN, as described above. Again, thorough analysis of the work by ear will have to wait until the CD from Stockhausen-Verlag becomes available.
© Albrecht Moritz 2003