The neomodernist musical movement that followed the second world war, and whose leading lights were Stockhausen, Boulez and Berio, was an undertaking of the highest seriousness. Not only was the language of music to be reconceived from top to bottom, and sideways, too, every work, it seemed, must have a global ambition. Stockhausen’s early scores — Kontra-Punkte, Gruppen, Carré, Kontakte, Momente, a grand progression — proposed, in each case, a new technique of composition and embodied it with monumental certi tude. Each was an enormous event, promptly recorded by Deutsche Grammophon, and intended to last. And, indeed, they have become the classics of “serialism”, along with such works as Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître or Berio’s music-theatre essay Laborintus II — not that they are performed as often as Mozart.
It was remarkable, therefore, a week ago to find that Laborintus II was being mounted by separate groups on successive nights: by the University of Birmingham’s Music Department in the Methodist Central Hall, Birmingham, and by the Aurora Orchestra with Mahogany Opera at LSO St Luke’s, in London. And, since the Birmingham concert was repeated the next day, their second Laborintus would have coincided exactly with the Aurora one. This wasn’t the only attraction of an unusual event called Squares, Circles, Labyrinths, directed by the composer Vic Hoyland. Stockhausen’s Carré was the first item, and between the two intervals of the triple-decker programme, the Birmingham University Singers, under Marcus Huxley, performed those pre-20th-century classics of “music in space”, Allegri’s Miserere and Tallis’s 40-voice motet Spem in alium.
For its (triumphantly resolved!) experiment with the spatialisation of sound is what makes Carré fascinating and gives it its title (“Square”). Four orchestras, each with its own conductor (Jonty Harrison, Lee Differ and Scott Wilson, along with Hoyland) play simul taneously, and ideas and gestures seem to move from one to another, circulating in the room, rather in the fashion of Gruppen, for three orchestras, but without that work’s minutely distinguished time streams. To Gruppen’s relentless dynamism, Carré opposes a contemplative relish of sonority for itself, although the climax near the end was every bit as shattering as a Gruppen high point.