Hermann Nitsch, Vienna Donaucitykirche, 25 January 2012

Not really a concert, but still an event worthy of note, this was the first time I had seen Hermann Nitsch play the organ and the first time he had done so in Vienna for many years. Although I’ve made a couple of passing references to Nitsch on this blog, the man’s importance to my way of thinking has never been properly acknowledged here. This review is not the place to rectify that, except to note that in the six years I’ve been living in Vienna, the life and work of the Viennese Actionists, and Nitsch (the only one of the four still active) in particular, has become increasingly central to me. I was, though, an admirer of Nitsch’s work before I came here, and attended his 2002 action at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. Since moving to Austria, I’ve made three pilgrimages to his castle at Prinzendorf, as well as attending CD and DVD presentations at which he was present. I arrived just a couple of months too late to witness his stunning eight-hour action at the Burgtheater in 2005, but he’s planning another six-day action at Prinzendorf in 2014 and I fully intend to be there.

In the meantime, this was a fairly bizarre event for Nitsch – a launch event for a new book on the subject of the Catholic Holy Mass, Die Heilige Messe: Kultisch, Szenisch, Sinnlich, Mystisch, to which he had made a written contribution. Having participated in a lengthy panel discussion with the other co-authors (which of course went completely over my head), and having politely sat through seemingly endless iterations of a short choral piece composed by the book’s publisher Peter Jan Marthé and sung by the church choir, the Actionist stationed himself at the Donaucitykirche’s, let’s face it, rather small organ, and improvised on it for half an hour or so. Two assistants stood either side of him and presumably (since it was impossible to see what they were doing) helped him to play the thing.

It was also an unusual event for me, in that it was the first time I had been to the Donaucitykirche for several years. A stone’s throw from my former workplace at the UN, this unassuming place of worship was also the venue for a number of winter concerts organized by my son’s former kindergarten, at which he was a vocal and enthusiastic participant.

My only previous exposure to Nitsch’s organ playing was the magnificent Die Geburt des Dionysos Christos box set, with its 1986 audio and video recordings of him playing the massive Brucknerhaus organ in Linz. Given the vast scale of that performance, I was rather taken aback by how puny the Donaucitykirche’s instrument looked and sounded. Of course there was no comparison between the two, although I still found Nitsch’s layered durational tones in this brief performance to be celestial and inspiring. At around the twenty-minute mark the volume increased markedly, causing Nitsch’s exquisite drones to hover and drift mesmerisingly to the end.

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