Music theatre with intense intimacy – Stockhausen Harlekin at Rauma Festivo

Clarinetist Lauri Sallinen performing Stockhausen’s Harlekin. © Juuso Westerlund

One of the absolute highlights of the 2021 festival season took place at Rauma Festivo on Wednesday, as clarinettst Lauri Sallinen presented his in-house and online audiences with an extraordinary performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s spellbinding Harlekin (1975). The most extended and elaborate of the all the solo pieces written for Suzanne Stephens by the composer, Harlekin is a wondrous example of music theatre in an intimately communicative, chamber-like guise.

An utmost captivating fusion of sound and movement, the score of Harlekin sets out, in considerable detail, not only the musical fabric, but also the choreography and mimics of the costumed player. Taking his cue from commedia dell’arte, the composer takes his performer and the audience on a riveting journey, where sound, gesture and dance are fused together into veritable gesamtkunstwerk. Although conceived within solid formal architecture and crafted in fine detail, Harlekin also pokes fun at itself on every level, giving rise to a splendid hall of mirrors.

The musical material of Harlekin is developed from a core formula, which includes organized pitches, durations, dynamics and articulations, Stockhausen’s own variant of serial techniques. The forty-minute score consists of seven interconnected sections, each presenting the soloist in a different role, including Die Traumbote (The Dream Messenger), Der spitzbübische Joker (The Roguish Joker) and Der exaltiere Kreiselgeist (The Exalted Spinning Spirit), among others.

Each of the seven roles manifest themselves in sound and movement, with the rhythmic gestures often shared between the clarinet’s note-groupings and the performer’s tapping feet. Emerging from darkness, Harlekin opens with the soloist musing on an elongated thrill, out of which the first melodic fragments begin to take shape. Aligned with the sublime choreography, an elaborate series of sonic gestures ensues, yielding to more and more extended phrases of dream-like logic.

In the course of Harlekin, the relationship between sound and choreography is always at flux. In some passages, virtuoso melodic lines take precedence, whereas others focus on stomping and toe-tapping rhythms. Facial gestures and mimics play an essential part too, providing both sublime commentary and flamboyant comedy, ever in extension to the sonic material.

From rippling melodic ambience to soaring bird-calls, the solo clarinet material calls forth a true virtuoso. At the Rauma Festivo performance, the first outing for Harlekin in Finland since the eighties, Sallinen was ever up to the task. The clarinetist’s command over the musical material was simply astonishing, as the score unraveled in all of its ravishing detail and multi-faceted textural richness. In similar vein, Sallinen had mastered the fine-tuned choreography with evocative sensitivity and apt dexterity, delivering a performance of profound magic and roguish comedy.

Although Nico Muhly’s musical roots may point towards American minimalism, the sonic realms of his Three Études for Viola (2013), heard in the heels of Harlekin at the Rauma Hall, did not come off that far removed from some those of Stockhausen. In Muhly’s score, solo viola lines are woven together with a pre-recorded soundtrack of pulsating ostinatos and drones, provided in organ sounds, evoking the signature sound of the early seventies experimental music.

Somewhat akin to Stockhausen’s procedures and more prominently to those of the early minimalists, the solo viola plays musical patterns manipulated with additive and subtractive processes, to a spellbinding effect. Performed with precicion and vigor by Atte Kilpeläinen, the Études were clad in invigorating phrases, displaying admirable sonic intensity. Bridged with the multi-modal realm of Harlekin, Muhly’s etudes were also evoked in dance by Auri Ahola, whose sublime choreography blended beautifully with the music.

Concluding the wonderful evening, Kilpeläinen was joined onstage by violinist Siljamari Heikinheimo and pianist Anna Laakso for a captivating performance of Marzi Nyman’s Festivo Macabre (2013). Keeping up with the spirit of the works by Stockhausen and Muhly, Nyman’s trio also transcends beyond pure music (if such a thing even exists) with its almost cinematic instrumental narrative.

In Festivo Macabre, the three musicians are engaged in a winding musical conversation, sometimes in cordial agreement with each other, sometimes in diametrical opposition, provoking heated argument. A perfect little scene for eavesdropping, the trio’s catchy cocktail of dance idioms, lyrical tunes and gorgeous turbulence provides the listener with musical entertainment at the highest level, especially when performed with such communicativeness as Heikinheimo, Kilpeläinen and Laakso at Rauma Festivo.

A marvellously unified programme of three very different, yet interrelated musical idioms, Wednesday evening’s concert was a profoundly rewarding affair. Available on demand via Rauma Festivo website until 12 August, it is an event not to be missed. As each of the three performances gain form repeated viewings, streaming is a viable option to dig ever deeper into these fabulous scores.

Lauri Sallinen, clarinet

Atte Kilpeläinen, viola

Auri Ahola, dance

Siljamari Heikinheimo, violin

Anna Laakso, piano

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Harlekin (1975) for clarinet

Nico Muhly: Three Études for Viola (2013)

Marzi Nyman: Festivo Macabre (2013) for violin, viola and piano

Rauma Hall, Rauma, Finland

Wednesday 4 August, 7 pm

© Jari Kallio

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