When I first encountered Mantra in the early 1990s, it sounded like the most advanced music on the planet. Already two decades old then, Stockhausen’s android-hybrid of electronics and pianos messed with our perception of boundaries between body and machine, like hearing David Cronenberg in music. And Mantra also marked a personal breakthrough for Stockhausen: hacked off at arguing the toss with his ensemble over authorship of their responses to his “intuitive music” text scores, Mantra returned him to “manuscript paper” composition.
A lifetime later, it’s a tamer beast. The whole 70-minute construct spins outwards from a 13-note “formula”– Stockhausen’s word – that seeds structure, melody, articulation and gesture. To shore up compositional unity, Stockhausen grows the formula through his structure at different levels and speeds, the slowest version transforming the 13 notes electronically, embedding synthetic tones inside the natural grain of the piano. But despite Naxos’s claims, this is not the first digitally realised recording. Jan Panis, as here, managed the sound environment for Ellen Cover and Sepp Grotenhuis’s 1995 version; although, to be fair, his rig has evolved considerably over the intervening 15 years.
If 1950s modernism brings you out in spots, there’s nothing to fear from Mantra. The relatively conventional push-pull of Stockhausen’s expressive arcs mixes with what I find, personally, a less appealing atmosphere of quasi-religious ritual; crotales ring changes, like mapping out a liturgy. Anyone inspired by the mindful physical commitment of Cecil Taylor and Tony Oxley – his drums wired into the mains – transforming sounds as they find them, could even find this particular Mantra genteel and fussy. Pestova and Meyer’s attack and dynamic range don’t touch at the same extremes as Cover/Grotenhuis; and certainly not of the Kontarsky brothers’ premiere recording. Give it another 20 years, they’ll be playing this on Classic FM.