I didn’t much care for the version of Stockhausen’s Mantra that Xenia Pestova, Pascal Meyer and Jan Panis issued via Naxos in 2010. True enough, Mantra is a sound world away from the granular snarl of Stockhausen’s epoch-defined pieces of 1950s modernism; but this Mantra felt too self-consciously pretty in a field dominated still by the Kontarsky brothers’ premiere recording (DG, 7/72 – nla).
Recorded at Kings Place, the concert hall which nestles under The Guardian’s HQ in central London, pianists Mark Knoop and Roderick Chadwick, with Newton Armstrong managing the electronics, give us a modern version that is a real contender. The Naxos version suffered from a narrow bandwidth of dynamics; here the opening woodblock crack, with its accompanying brouhaha of piano turbulence, hits you between the eyes. Right from the get-go, the performance has a confidence that feels right and proper.
Mantra, written in 1970, finds Stockhausen at a point of transition. Behind him lay all those early responses to serialism – Gruppen, Kontakte, Refrain etc; ahead was Licht, his vast and wacky opera cycle, pinned around a network of melodic formulas, an idea about controlling musical material that had its roots in Mantra. As Stockhausen relished explaining, Mantra is underwritten by a 13-note formula that governs every parameter of his composition; but this isn’t Boulez’s Structures. The formula permeates at different speeds and rates; at the most subterranean level, the 13 notes transform electronically, the arrival of each new note heralding a new section.
In the moment of experiencing Mantra, you ought to be aware of this underlying arithmetic as consciously as you tick off the modulations during a Mahler symphony; the sounds are set in motion by Stockhausen’s formula but the music lies elsewhere. And this trio succeed precisely where that overly bureaucratic Naxos version falls down. The playing cuts through with knockout physicality; the sense that you are been shown multiple sides of an object that is perpetually evolving, spinning in and out of control, is secure.