Stockhausen's "Gruppen" (Groups) is a classic of the post-war avant-garde. In live performance the orchestra is divided into three groups, each with its own conductor, and placed to the front and both sides of the audience. The resulting spatialization is one of the work's key features, and is difficult if not impossible to accurately capture in a recording.
Unfortunately, however, this live December 1994 recording of the Berliner Philharmoniker, led by Friedrich Goldmann, Claudio Abbado, and Marcus Creed, is perhaps the worst of the few recordings over the years. Some may think that the "best orchestra" will necessarily produce the best performance, but all orchestras are not equally good at all types of music. The Berliner Philharmoniker is an excellent orchestra, yes, but they are not necessarily the best at contemporary avant-garde repertoire. The advantage in this case was the presence of Goldmann (1941-2009), an excellent composer of the DDR (East Germany) until reunification, who studied with Stockhausen as a young man. But the results are not inspiring. (This disc in the 20C series is a reissue of this original DG disc, which is still available.)
Here is a summary of "Gruppen" before I turn to a far superior recording, and the other two pieces on this disc:
"Gruppen (Groups) for 3 orchestras" (1955-57 -- 22'20 in this Berlin performance) is written for an orchestra of 108 players, divided into three groups of 36. Each group is about half strings and the other half equal numbers of woodwinds, brass, and percussion, the percussion both pitched and unpitched. "Gruppen" was pathbreaking in many ways. Theoretically it was an example of total serialism, an attempt to rigorously structure every aspect of the composition. The instrumentation is unorthodox, emphasizing percussion and deemphasizing strings. Spatialization is central to the sound, with the three groups placed to the front, left and right of the audience, with sounds moving dynamically, leaping, sometimes hurtling, from one group to another. The three groups play simultaneously at different tempos, requiring three conductors. Contrary to what one might imagine, "Gruppen" is actually a quite delicate tracery of sound, not a massive onslaught. According to Stockhausen, it is actually a synthesis of orchestral, chamber and solo music. Lacking melody, repetition, sonata form, and other recognizable features, "Gruppen" is a journey into unknown terrain. One way to think of it is Webern's "Symphony (Op. 21)" expanded in every dimension.
The best recording of "Gruppen" according to Stockhausen himself, who made it available through his own mail order website upon its release in 2006, is by the WDR Sinfonieorchester Koln, led by Peter Eotvos, on the Budapest Music Center label. (The performance was in 1997.) Eotvos (b. 1944), the Hungarian composer and conductor, was a regular member of the Stockhausen Ensemble from 1968 to 1976, and so has an intimate working knowledge of Stockhausen's scores and thinking about how they should be performed. The WDR/Eotvos recording floors the listener immediately with its depth of sound and the conviction of the players, who have clearly rehearsed the piece to the point where they can give a heart-felt interpretation and not merely struggle to keep up with the score. The distance between it and this Berlin performance and recording is vast. The WDR/Eotvos recording is the one to get, and it may soon be unavailable, so don't delay!
Stockhausen (1928-2007) was long based in Koln (Cologne), and "Gruppen" was commissioned by, first performed by, and first recorded by the WDR, so clearly this is the most authoritative orchestra to perform the legendary work. (WDR stands for Westdeutscher Rundfunk, or West German Radio.) The first recording of "Gruppen" was made in 1965, by the WDR Sinfonieorchester Koln led by Karlheinz Stockhausen, Bruno Maderna, and Michael Gielen. This is the recording found on Stockhausen Edition No. 5 available from Stockhausen-Verlag. The premiere performance was by the WDR on March 24, 1958 with Stockhausen, Maderna, and Pierre Boulez conducting.
The other two pieces on this 20C disc are by the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag (b. 1926). "Grabstein fur Stephan" (1989 -- 9'17) is a very quiet piece for guitar and instrumental groups, with Jurgen Ruck on guitar. It is music for reflection and grieving, and I have not yet found it to be at all compelling under everyday circumstances.
The other Kurtag piece, though, "Stele" (1994 -- 12'33), is stunning. One of only a handful of orchestral pieces by Kurtag, who mainly writes chamber music, it was written for and dedicated to Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker while Kurtag was composer-in-residence. The last of the three movements is based on a piano piece written for Kurtag's friend and promoter, Andras Mihaly. This live recording is fine, though the orchestra sounds as if it is at a distance. The advantage is that the overall contour is easily discernable, but the detail is lacking.
This becomes clear on comparison to the 1996 recording by the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, led by Michael Gielen. The SWR recording is much brighter and clearer -- it sounds as if you are in the middle of the orchestra. The powerful central section stands out in sharper relief, and the repeating chords in the final movement, like a bell tolling, are less muffled. The SWR/Gielen recording was available in the Musik in Deutschland 1950-2000 series from RCA, which unfortunately no longer seems to be available. But it can also be heard on this excellent Hanssler disc along with Mahler's Symphony No. 2. (Gielen's entire Mahler symphony cycle is well worth hearing.)
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This disc can be recommended to those looking for an affordable and available recording of "Gruppen," with all the caveats and alternatives mentioned above. It can also be recommended to anyone who happens to be looking for Kurtag's "Stele," though it too is not the best available recording.
If you're investigating Stockhausen, check out The Quintessential Stockhausen Chamber Music Disc with four seminal 1950s pieces performed and recorded in 2008 and 2009 with panache by the ensemble recherche, in addition to the WDR/Eotvos orchestral disc.
(verified purchase from a large brick-and-mortar bookstore)