At the Proms: Stockhausen and Wagner

Jeffrey Skidmore and Daniel Barenboim rise to the formidable challenge of staging Stockhausen and Wagner at The Proms.

Prom 11 – Stockhausen (Jeffrey Skidmore)
Prom 15 –Wagner (Daniel Barenboim)
Royal Albert Hall, London SW7
 
As musical ghouls-under-the-bed go, it doesn’t get scarier than Wagner (too long) and Stockhausen (too complicated). Yet if ever there’s been a time to face those fears, it was last month at the BBC Proms. Music-making of exceptional, ecstatic virtuosity made urgent what is too often academic, dissolving terrors and challenging us to find difficulty amid so much joy.
 
There’s an elegant symmetry in how Wagner’s Ring and Stockhausen’s Licht have ended up in dialogue at this year’s Proms. Both monumental opera cycles, composed over almost 30 years, span the gamut of human experience and emotion, not to mention many hours. The Proms are a festival made for larger-than-life works. Even as the Royal Albert Hall’s acoustics can so bafflingly defeat a musical classic, they can also amplify a problem piece, generating a spatial drama that can’t be matched anywhere else.
 
This was certainly true of Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Jünglinge” on 19 July. An early foray into electronic music, the work was projected (rather than performed) from a mixing desk at the centre of the hall by the composer’s protégée Kathinka Pasveer, while the stage remained empty. To make the stolid, Victorian hulk of this venue disquieting is almost impossible, but as the ghostly sound of choristers from Cologne Cathedral, recorded in the 1950s, echoed from empty galleries all around us, the sense of the uncanny was palpable in the physical vibrations of the speakers set up around the hall to transmit Stockhausen’s soundscape. Immersed in the voices of trebles who are no longer boys, we felt a dated technological exercise become something altogether richer.
 
This was just the warm-up for “Welt-Parlament” – the opening scene of Mittwoch, one of the seven operas that make up Licht. Last year, it was performed complete with actual helicopters and camels (each opera has a web of associated symbols, including elements – air, in this case – and animals) in Birmingham. The extract staged at the Royal Albert Hall maintained its energy in concert.
 
In a high tower, a UN-type assembly debated the nature of love in surreal, often deliberately incomprehensible fashion. The excellent Ex Cathedra choir’s voices, divorced from humanity by the use of microphones, did battle with the hollow babble of metro - nomes. The sound was less about melody or harmony than it was a woven texture, through which moments of lyricism occasionally burst (the tenors’ odd paean to love, a solo soprano’s pirouetting coloratura). It was music at the edge of its definition but, under Jeffrey Skidmore’s understated direction, the choir and soloists found both beauty and wit among the abstraction.
 
There is nothing abstract about Wagner’s Ring cycle, an epic folk narrative spread across four nights of opera. The composer’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (“total art”) is in direct conflict with a semi-staging such as Justin Way’s but, with this cast, the drama’s all in the music.
 
Whatever his weaknesses, Daniel Barenboim is among the finest living Wagnerians. With a hand-picked cast and the Staats - kapelle Berlin orchestra, he is perhaps the finest. At the performance of Die Walküre on 23 July, the orchestra’s strings swelled thickly and its brass had a sheen, even at fortissimo, to rival the glint of the Nibelungen gold. Barenboim paced their arcs of emotion with absolute mastery, allowing momentum to build as Sieglinde (Anja Kampe) and Siegmund (Simon O’Neill) tumbled forwards into their incestuous love and pulling back during the tender conflict between Bryn Terfel’s Wotan and his daughter Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme),whom he must condemn to the flames.
 
Terfel, Kampe and Eric Halfvarson (as the warrior Hunding) all found humanity in a tale that can too easily remain distant among the gods – but the night was Stemme’s. Bounding onstage with her terrifying “Hojo- to-ho”, this was a Valkyrie who needed no winged helmet to announce her identity. The echo of her battle cry will linger long after the Proms season has ended – a whoop of triumph at having vanquished so many musical demons.
It doesn't get much scarier than Wagner and Stockhausen. Photograph: BBC Pictures.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Why are Moby, Ed Sheeran and Laura Mvula putting on gigs in the living rooms of total strangers?

Billy Bragg, The National and Nothing But Thieves are all doing the same.

Depending on your personal taste, Ed Sheeran turning up at your house, guitar in hand, to sings some earnest tunes could be a dream come true or a living nightmare. But what about The National? Or Moby? Or Laura Mvula? These are just some of the artists that have agreed to put on shows today in people’s homes around the world – from Washington DC to Cape Town.

Today, over 1,000 artists will play “living room shows” in 60 countries as part of Give a Home, “the largest global festival ever held”. Organised by Sofar and Amnesty international , the concerts are being held to raise awareness of the refugee crisis, and as a guesture of solidarty with the 22 million refugees worldwide: fans were given the chance to donate to Amnesty when applying to win tickets.

British rock group Nothing But Thieves have always injected a level of political consciousness into their songs. Their second album, Broken Machines, was released earlier this month, charting at number two in the UK album chart. I spoke to guitarist Joe Langridge-Brown about Give A Home and their concert tonight in London.

Why did you agree to be a part of Give a Home?

It’s just something that we’re passionate about. We write songs about the refugee crisis, and this is what we talk about as people: in the band, on the bus. My girlfriend works at NGOs like Care and Amnesty, so it’s something that we’re passionate about. When we got this opportunity to play we jumped at the chance - anything we can do to even marginally help, we will. This is going all around the world, Ed Sheeran’s doing one in Washington, and The National are doing one. It’s amazing how many bands and artists have got involved.

Any you’re particular fans of?

Well, I mean, Conor [Mason, lead singer] really likes the National – but they just beat us to number one album!

Have you done a gig like this before?

Yeah, absolutely. We like playing these stripped back sessions, it makes the song come alive a bit more in a way, because they’re really raw, and some of them were written like that: just acoustic guitar and voice.

Do you think musicians and celebrities have a responsibility to engage with politics and issues like the refugee crisis?

We feel that way. I feel like we would be letting ourselves down and neglecting some sort of duty to use your platform for good and for things that you believe in. I get that it’s not for every artist, and I don’t think every artist should be pressured into doing it. But personally, for us, we’re writing an album and we want it to say something. It wouldn’t represent us if it didn’t.

What do you hope people who go to the gig will get from it?

Hopefully it will give people a sense of community, that’s what this whole thing is about. Its about raising awareness for the refugee crisis: I mean, it affects 22 million lives. It’s important to do something that just lets refugees know that they’re welcome and safe. Anything we can do to help in that way would be a positive thing.

What can people do to support refugees?

You might have to ask my girlfriend! Just talking about it in a way that is compassionate is important. I think one of the problems we have, especially at the moment in the age of Facebook, is that although social media has done a world of good in some areas, it also creates an “us v them” enviroment, and I think that’s really dangerous for humanity. I don’t think that way of thinking is positive at all. If this can do anything to bring a sense of community and togetherness, then that would be amazing.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.