Pianists pair with gadgetry in Stockhausen’s theatrical ‘Mantra’

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / November 18, 2009

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Few have taken the prerogative aspect of composition as seriously as Karlheinz Stockhausen. In composing his formidable “Mantra,’’ in 1970, Stockhausen said he felt as if it paralleled the construction of the universe. Realizing the work’s hour-plus expanse rivals that effort within the musical universe, so when the superb pianists Katherine Chi and Aleksandar Madzar took on the challenge at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Sunday, it was a welcome opportunity: courtside seats at the creation.

“Mantra’’ is for two pianists, not just two pianos - each player also handles woodblocks, crotales (an assembly of small, tuned cymbals), and electronic modulation of the live sound. Chi and Madzar were ensconced among percussion, microphones, and MIDI controllers (reprogrammed to the original’s analog specifications by Caroline Park); audio engineers James Donahue and Cameron Kirkpatrick manned a front-row command post. The music’s pervasive scheme - a 13-note row, each note tasked with its own expressive characteristics - produced, paradoxically, one of Stockhausen’s most freely expressive works. The sound-world looks both forward and back: the electronics like a science-fiction gamelan, metallic overtones pushing the piano timbres in and out of focus, the form unfolding like a venerable suite even as it pushes the modernist envelope.

It’s a credit to both composer and performers that Chi and Madzar were in no way overshadowed by the gadgetry. Stockhausen choreographs a physical theatricality to match the music; a contest of pianistic one-upmanship is later transformed into a bout of shouting and striking, the comic aggression immediately juxtaposed with an eerily desolate landscape. Dense surfaces - often driven by a grid of pulsating, repeated notes - alternate with motionless rumination. At one point, a series of isolated accents jab out of a swirl of electronic resonance, encapsulating the work’s overall mood in brief: vivid details within the hazy context of a dream.

“Mantra’’ mixes otherworldly aspects with bits and pieces seemingly drawn from 20th-century history, musical and otherwise: jazzy chords, impressionistic waves, fleeting glimpses of a triadic toy-soldier fanfare in the fog. At one point, recorded Morse code signals are mixed in; an extended bout of chain-reaction, particle-collider virtuosity yields an aftermath gradually slipping out on a calm, austere note. “Mantra’’ channels an artistic goal born out of the world wars’ chaos, attempting to envision a new world along rational lines. But Stockhausen’s invented universe, its birth pangs fading into meditation, bears more than a passing resemblance to our own.

MANTRA Katherine Chi and Aleksandar Madzar, pianists

At: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Sunday

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