KAGEL: Szenario / Duodramen / Liturgien

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Mauricio Kagel (b. 1931)

Szenario • Duodramen • Liturgien


Born in Buenos Aires on 24 December 1931, Mauricio Kagel was self-taught as a composer, taking a 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 favoured by the Perón government, while an anti-establishment intent is similarly evident in articles and reviews written for the journal Nueva Visión. Kagel traveled to West Germany on a DAAD scholarship during 1957, soon settling in Cologne, where he worked with all the main new music organizations and performing bodies. Active as a conductor, writer and teacher, his numerous honours include the Mozart Medal of Frankfurt, Ordre des arts et des lettres, Bundesverdienst Orden First Class, and membership of the Berlin Academy of Arts. Retrospectives of his works have been held throughout Europe and also in North America.

Although his 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 musical aesthetic was already his own, bringing together precisely organized elements with others that undermine such precision in what is a subtle but determined examination of the rôle of 'control' in art and, by extension, society. The early 1960s saw the advent of his concept of 'instrumental theatre', in which sound itself becomes subject to the presence of the performers in acting out a dramatic context for the work to take place. At around the same time, he embarked on a series of films where music and vision are combined in new and often intriguing perspectives, not least Ludwig Van (1970), a bicentennial 'homage' to Beethoven that questions the rôles of tradition and the performer, with pertinent implications for the subsequent development of the classical music industry.

During the 1980s Kagel's language underwent a number of changes, in line with his incorporation of more conventional musical notation, as well as his recourse to outwardly more traditional harmonic and tonal elements. Thus Sankt-Bach-Passion (1985) is more a continuation, rather than 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 individual exploration of formal and expressive tenets: in other words, asking how might it be possible to compose such pieces without either repudiating or succumbing to the legacy of the musical past. Such an approach has inevitably led to charges of Kagel having embraced the thinking of post-Modernism, as have many other composers of his generation, but the subversive and questioning nature of his stance, as evident in the orchestral Three Etudes (1996), has surely prevented any surrender to mere nostalgia.

It is in this context that the works on this disc should be understood. While each can be heard as an abstract and self-consistent entity, the presence of an extra-musical dimension is rarely absent. What emerges might thus be described as respectively a cinematic accompaniment, an operatic scena and a sacred service (though the texts of the latter two works can hardly be taken at face value). How each of these 'situations' relates to, and so determines an understanding of, the piece in question is left for the individual listener to decide.

Composed during 1981-2 and scored for string orchestra with tape, Szenario was conceived as an independent work, but quickly found a new rôle as musical backing to the Luis Buñuel / Salvador Dalí silent classic Le chien andalou (1928). While making a suitably powerful contribution to the impact of this surreal tale of deceit and betrayal, the piece leaves no mean impression on its own terms. Against a tramping rhythm played col legno (with the wood of the bow), and with frequent use of percussive effects to suggest forward movement, the piece passes through writing of considerable harmonic and textural density, the whining of a dog audible at quieter moments. Solo strings have occasional poetic if brief solos, but the overriding atmosphere is of ominous uncertainty, often verging on a state of anxiety, as the music lurches forward to no discernible purpose. From around the eight-minute mark, the tempo picks up noticeably, the heightening in intensity paralleled by more aggressive 'barking' sounds, before relapsing into a state of relative torpor, in which manner the piece gradually winds down to a calm but far from tranquil conclusion.

Composed in 1999 and scored for soprano and baritone soloists with a decidedly 'late-Romantic' orchestra, Duodramen can be heard either as an orchestral song-cycle in the tradition of Mahler or as an operatic 'final scene' in the tradition of Wagner or Richard Strauss: the music itself admitting of both these possibilities. Against a hectic but often fragmentary orchestral backdrop, the opening Allegro introduces an imploring soprano, before the Grave brings a more continuous manner and introduces an over-rhetorical baritone. Stealthy pizzicato marks the beginning of the first Andantino, with an often histrionic vocal duet unfolding against some vividly suggestive orchestral writing. Hesitant phrases from both singers lead to the Molto tranquillo, which proceeds as a sustained and also emotionally-wrought dialogue for the singers against orchestral writing of notable subtlety. The second Andantino opens with a powerful tutti dominated by brass and timpani, out of which the soprano emerges in frenzy, followed by the hectoring baritone. The latter continues thus at the start of the final Allegretto, unsuccessfully countered by the soprano's entreaties. Broken in spirit, the soprano utters a number of hopeless phrases, a march rhythm taking hold of the orchestra as the work moves towards a close in which the confrontation between the singers is abruptly cut short.

Composed during 1989-90 and scored for tenor, bass and baritone soloists, two mixed choruses and an orchestra with woodwind and brass especially prominent, Liturgien is a further instance of Kagel's take on an age-old social process so as to illumine its musical essence from a new perspective. The three soloists are heard immediately, set apart from the chorus in much the same way that the celebrants might be distinguished from the congregation in an actual liturgical context. The chorus has bursts of a more animated expression, but the predominant mood is of a 'service' being conducted in the spirit (if not to the letter) that such an occasion warrants. The orchestral writing is, for the main part, densely woven, with occasional outbursts that underpin (though not necessarily literally) key moments within the text. The vocal writing is often tinged with modal elements that accentuate a connection with the sacred choral tradition, while the emergence (around two-thirds of the way through the piece) of thunderous organ chords provokes mingled elation and desperation in the chorus. The closing minutes draw the work to a resolution in which the 'service' is completed in an expressive, if hardly formal manner.

Richard Whitehouse

Disc: 1
1 Szenario
2 I. Allegro
3 II. Grave
4 III. Andantino
5 IV. Molto tranquillo
6 V. Andantino
7 VI. Allegretto
8 Liturgien
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