Here is a recording long overdue, and not only because it is the first representation of two famous composers. While it might be rash to say that the musical avant garde has lost touch with the concert-going public, it is certain that this public must be educated in a very thorough manner if it is to get more than a shock from a work by Stockhausen. Last year's New Music concerts in Paine Hall included several works by Stockhausen and members of his school; auditors were left with vivid memories of short bursts of highly involved music, inevitably punctuated by long spells of uncontrollable giggling from the audience.
Le Marteau created a mild sensation at its first performance three years ago. After an interval in which Webern's fame has grown tremendously, Boulez' piece has become more accessible, although it remains a rather tough puzzle. Certainly it has far more surface attraction than the Stockhausen recorded here: Boulez call for alto flute, xylorymba, vibraphone, guitar, viola, and several exotic percussion instruments. Four of the nine sections are settings of surrealistic poetry by Rene Char; the contralto Margery MacKay displays here an engagingly warm and sensuous voice. Practically all of the music moves at a furious tempo; this speed, coupled with the wide intervals and the high register of the instruments makes the specific pitch of each note difficult to grasp. This is also the case with Stockhausen, as Robert Craft points out: "For example, we hear a high, loud, staccato note in the oboe; that it is high, loud, staccato, and played by an oboe are factors of almost as great importance as whether the note itself is, say, F or G."
In Le Marteau one recognizes Boulez' individuality; it is far from being merely French Webern played at high speed. Many listeners will be charmed by the piece--few will be charmed by Zeitmasse ("Tempo"), for woodwind quintet (with English horn substituted for horn). Where Boulez is witty and Gallic, Stockhausen is ponderous and Teutonic. The piece is based on an exceedingly complicated schedule of ratios, educations, and formula borrowed from the forbidding world of electronic music. What the uninitiated listener hears is a strange web of sound, frequently frightening and dense as all five instruments sweep from one extreme of their range to the other at top speed and volume; occasionally chilling, as a solo instrument attacks a note suddenly and disappears into a long silence.
Mr. Craft has achieved clear, accurate performances; his notes are long and helpful, though somewhat precious. A listener willing to concentrate is likely to find these pieces stimulating if he does not expect these composers to have the same aims at Beethoven. Though sophisticated, Boulez and Stockhausen are by no means incomprehensible.