This is the first time that French musicians have recorded Stockhausen’s masterpiece, an “art-music” product of the psychedelia of the 1960s and 70s. Mantra will be a pleasant surprise for those who have learned to fear the enfant terrible of 20th century contemporary avant-gardism. Based on a formula of 13 notes (the 12 notes of the chromatic scale plus the return of the initial note of the series), Mantra will prove to be an easy and even humorous piece for first-time listeners.
Written for two pianos, wood-block, antique cymbals and ring modulator (analog electronic instrument, here digitally reproduced) typical of the sound explosion of the 1970s (John McLaughlin used it in his Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jon Lord in Deep Purple, Miles Davis…), Mantra unfolds without pause for nearly an hour.
An hour where the starting formula stretches, contracts, explodes, implodes, blossoms, transforms itself with a profusion of mind-boggling creative genius. One can see protons, neutrons, electrons and even their constituent quarks combining and un-combining like an abstract quantum dance in appearance, but rigorously framed in reality. Framed yes, and very strictly too, because in addition to the 13 basic sounds of the ”formula” (the mantra), the work is divided into 13 large sections, through which the formula will be moved 13 times on each of its own notes and enlarged 13 times. The ring modulator will transform those by coloring them, the portions thus created… 13 more times, according to 13 levels of graduation possible with this instrument! Victims of triskaidekaphobia (the fear of the number 13) please refrain!
But beyond the intellectual concept, some would say cerebral, the music comes to life in a completely organic and natural way, without letting anything of the underlying rigorism appear, nor giving off the slightest coldness of character. One is fascinated by what one hears. Like myself, who doesn’t understand much about the ballet of nanoparticles but finds it infinitely beautiful when scientists offer me some illustrations of it, the non-specialized music lover who doesn’t understand anything about the theoretical concepts instrumented by Stockhausen will nevertheless fall under the hypnotic spell of this music of arid, mysterious and amusing beauty all at once. And for those who are already music lovers, the pleasure will be multiplied tenfold.
This is the strength of Stockhausen’s musical genius. But of course, the performance must be beautiful and good. And fortunately, it is! Jean-Frédéric Neuburger, Jean-François Heisser (pianos) and Serge Lemouton (electronics) plunge like children thirsty for lemonade into this music, which is certainly demanding but very playful despite its immense rigor.
Of course, it’s impossible not to compare it to the basic version, the one by which Mantra first existed on Deutsche Grammophon disc more than 50 years ago now, the version by Aloys and Alfons Kontarsky. The Kontarskys are a tad faster (65 min. vs. 68 for the French) but, oddly enough, I feel that Neuburger and Heisser manage to infuse the score with more of a smile and playfulness, a feeling of greater lightness, as if the reading were less cluttered and more airy. Don’t misunderstand me: the Kontarskys remain indispensable, but this all-gallic version brings an undeniable breath of fresh air to this monument of 20th-century avant-gardism. Bravo!