Sunday, December 15, 2013

My Year with Wolfgang Rihm

Most of my many classical music purchases in 2013 featured the work of Wolfgang Rihm. I went OCD on Rihm in 2013. Before this year I only owned three CDs by him, one of which features his excellent but difficult turn-of-the-century avant-garde composition Jagden und Formen (Hunts and Forms). Another CD offers his interesting composition from 1983 entitled Silence to be beaten, where he uses the piano in its pristine form as a percussion instrument (a single key is hammered vigorously for extended periods). My third Rihm CD contains his beautiful and accessible Music for Oboe and Orchestra (2002) among other pieces.

I have had an interest in exploring Rihm further but did not get serious about it until this year, when I purchased another ten Rihm CDs. This only puts a dent in the possible purchases out there by Rihm, who is one of the most prolific living composers in the world. He has apparently written three times the amount of music Beethoven composed in his lifetime. In fact, many of his compositions have yet to be performed let alone recorded. Much of his vast array of music exists only on paper scores and in the heads of those who can read music.

Rihm is known for tinkering with "finished" pieces. Much of his work has multiple composition dates, sometimes decades apart. Jagden und Formen, for example, was composed between 1995-2001. Even this extended composition period failed to settle the matter. Currently the work has been tinkered with in 2007 and 2008. Rihm's website lists the work as in "state 2008" currently. A good portion of what was released in the past 15 years or so was composed in the 1970's and 1980's. Perhaps the best example of this is an enormous orchestral work entitled Tutuguri (1981/1982) which weighs in at over 115 minutes, audaciously surpassing Mahler and Bruckner in sheer length. This composition is an (as yet) un-choreographed "dance poem" that received its world-premiere in 2000.

Tutuguri is magnificent even without the dancers. It is a vigorous, rhythmic work that engages the mind and takes the listener on a series of fantastic sonic experiences that are interwoven throughout its extended and diverse presentation. A fairly detailed compositional analysis of Tutuguri can be found here. I will merely point out that this work is an excellent example of how Rihm fuses the styles of John Cage, Anton Webern, and Gustav Mahler all into one extraordinary hyper-modern orchestration. The piece is punctuated throughout by periods of utter silence. Often there are winds softly performing some anxious theme, contrasted with powerful, almost annihilating, percussion.

It seems to me that the percussion generates massive energy which feeds the orchestra as it growls and broods and exhibits moments of stunning coloration. The first 78 minutes of the work is a balanced combination of all these elements. The final 38 minutes is a spectacular, driving and bombastic movement by six percussionists, augmented by occasional choir and a speaker shouting. In size and scope Tutuguri is perhaps a pretentious and somewhat decadent composition, but that does not deter me. Rihm is at is most outlandish self in this work that contains just about everything and yet sounds quite like nothing you've ever heard before. Again, the "dance poem" has never been choreographed but the listener can easily visualize dancers in modern mode and attire accentuating the rich, lively sounds to be experienced here.


Another large scale premiere recording from 2000 is Morphonie which was composed for orchestra and string quartet in 1974 when Rihm was only 22 years old. It is 40 minutes mostly influenced by the Schoenberg school with a touch of Mahler for grandeur. This was Rihm's major breakthrough work when it was originally performed (but not recorded) and it is worth a listen though it strikes me as purely experimental and overly complex without being particularly moving or lingering. It is accompanied on the two CD set by three orchestral pieces entitled Klangbescheibung (Sound Description). Once again, Rihm exhibits a preference to give rather poetic titles to his work in rebellion against the traditional concerto or symphony designation.

Klangbeschreibung One - Three (K1, K2, K3) were composed in 1987 and exhibits a type of experimentation in sound slanted toward the deep register. Wind instruments are most frequently performed on the lowest of keys, sometimes barely audible, reminding me at times of large frogs croaking in a lush soundscape without melody. K1 (20-minutes) is actually composed for three orchestra groupings, not for the orchestra as a whole. K2 (28-minutes) is the most ethereal of the three pieces and features four female voices singing fragments of a poem by Friedrich Nietzsche. K3 (38-minutes) completes the tri-partite "sound description" with a full orchestra. This is the most satisfying piece on the CD though it remains complex listening. Rihm is experimenting with sound here on a scale far beyond anything Arnold Schoenberg or Alban Berg or Webern (or even Elliot Carter) attempted. It is admirable but its experimental nature makes it seem too fragmented to leave more than a passing impression. It does not strike me as a holistic work but as, rather, a series of sophisticated musical doodles.

Percussion is a bedrock to many of Rihm's early compositions. Dis-Kontur is a 23-minute piece for large orchestra. Composed in 1974, it shows the young composer fascinated with juxtaposing dominant percussion against a huge orchestral sound. This piece pre-dates Tutuguri by almost ten years and is interesting in the context of his evolution even though it is not as satisfying as Tutuguri. On the same CD is the 27-minute work, Sub-Kontur for Orchestra. I really like this work which is much more Mahlerian and sounds more cohesive and mature even though it dates from 1974-1975 as well. There is a lot to appreciate here from the solo drums at the beginning through the complex yet often melodic strings and horns to as much of a triumphant conclusion as one is likely to experience from Rihm. The work is at times filled with anxious energy and in other moments is highly contemplative allowing you to feel the space in the music - a common experience with Rihm. Sub-Kontur is perhaps my favorite early Rihm composition. This is another example of a late world premiere recording from the Rihm catalog, coming out in 2007, fully 33 years after work's composition.

The earliest work in my Rihm collection is his somewhat oddly designated 1 Symphony from 1969. He was a mere 17 years old at the time but it shows outstanding expressive promise even though the audaciously labelled "symphony" lasts only 10 minutes. 2 Symphony is only 14 minutes in length and dates from 1975. It is for a larger orchestra and I hold it as a superior composition as it possesses a far more dramatic effect. Also on that CD is a work from 1992-1995 entitled Vers une symphonie fleuve III. This is a great example of Rihm's never-ending compositional lifestyle. Apparently, this 23-minute piece is intended as the "adagio" for a much larger symphonic work that has yet to be completed/performed.

Rihm seems fond of juxtaposing the orchestra with a string quartet. His 26-minute Concerto Dithyrambe (2000) is such a piece, which, according to the liner notes in this CD, is not in the concerto form at all. Once again he shows how loose and carefree he is toward traditional classical music concepts and designations, reflective of the general trend among contemporary composers. No matter what how it is labelled this is a highly energetic and entertaining work. The liner notes express Rihm's entire approach to music more expertly than I can in the sentence: "Rihm refrains from following any predetermined architectural concept; the musical architecture develops step-by-step from interplay of intuition and strategy." Quoting the composer: "I can't tune out my dialectic, intellectual thinking, but I also can't ignore my intuition. There is no recipe for my methodology. For me, music is a living being. Even its very 'stasis' is of a nervous nature." In that way his "concerto" is a kind of summation of his life's work and another favorite piece of mine by him. No relaxed listening here. This is music that is on the move to a powerful effect.

This CD also contains two pieces for piano and orchestra, Sotto voce Notturo (1999) and Sotto voce 2 Capriccio (2007). These are a nice contrast to the Dithyrambe in that they are more relaxed and provoke a contemplative mood making the entire CD one of Rihm's best in my opinion. The listener gets to experience both Rihm's light touch and his heaviness in a rewarding way. Rihm is traditionally more interested in orchestral and string compositions so it is nice to listen to how he handles the piano gracefully nested in an expressive orchestral piece.

Fetzen is a CD from 2011 featuring Rihm's 14-minute String Quartet No. 12 (2000/2001) as well as eight short string quartet pieces (1999/2004). Fetzen means "scraps", in this case ranging from 2 minutes to 5 minutes in length. This is an interesting addition to my collection in that it is an example of how Rihm tirelessly tinkers with his own works and his prolific musical ideas. The scraps are wide-ranging in sound and effect and serve as possible addendum's to the "finished" (one always wonders if anything is final with Rihm) quartet. Some of scraps have an accordion thrown in, which fits just fine with the string instruments. These are more doodles by Rihm, interesting musical ideas and experiments that are probably as completed as they will ever be.

A piano quintet completes the CD, called Interscriptum (2000/2004), which the composer rebelliously insists is a "Duo for String Quartet and Piano". It begins with the exact same phrase as the Quartet No. 12 and is another fine example of how Rihm tinkers, this time mixing (or contrasting) a piano with the quartet to produce a wonderfully contemplative 14-minute work. Given how Rihm considers the string quartet as a duo with a piano or even with an orchestra it might be safe to say he composes the quartet holistically, as if it were a singular instrument instead of four.

As we move further into the 21st century, Wolfgang Rihm is composing in a new style. His compositions since 2002 are largely more lyrical and accessible while remaining unique and sophisticated. This is shown clearly in the four wonderful orchestral pieces known as Verwandlung (Metamorphisis). V1 (2002) borrows a theme from his Music for Clarinet and Orchestra (entitled Uber die Linie II, 1999) and is my personal favorite of the four works featured on this CD. V2 is from 2004 while V3 and V4 were completed in 2008, making them some of the most recent works I have in my collection. All are different. They do not "fit" together as, say movements of a symphony. Knowing Rihm the series might not even be finished.  In 2013 he composed an as yet unrecorded V5. Nevertheless, I would recommend this CD as a good way to get into Rihm's latest (less dissonant and avant-garde while still remaining rich and complex) style.

This evolution in style seems to have began around the time of his Uber die Linie II (basically a clarinet concerto in all but name), which I hold to be the best in all recent classical music, counting strong efforts for clarinet and orchestra by Elliot Carter (1996), Magnus Lindberg (2002) and Kaija Saariaho (2010). This magnificent 37-minute work is a beautiful tapestry of tones and resonances that rewards the listener in a satisfying and unsentimental way. At times introspective, at times silent, at times boisterous and driving, this is one of my favorite contemporary classical compositions. The work is coupled on this CD with a 29-minute violin and orchestra piece from 2008 entitled Coll'Arco - again a concerto by any other name. This is a highly romantic yet modern composition that shows a lot of Berg's influence. It is a splendid accompaniment to the clarinet piece though it not as strong as Esa-Pekka Salonen's Violin Concerto in my opinion. Still, the two pieces are powerful together making this CD highly recommended for any modern collection.

Similarly, his CD featuring Quid est Deus for Choir and Orchestra (2007, 33-minutes) is quite accessible to any listener. Rihm has received criticism from some contemporary classical critics for producing music that, so they claim, sounds more like at it belongs to the beginning of the last century than the beginning of this one. I am not musically trained so I can't comment on how closely his compositions stray or remain rooted in hyper-modern musicology. I only know that I find the older Rihm to be of great interest as evidenced in this post. But the recent Rihm speaks more deeply to me and much of it sounds just as complex (though far more melodic) as his earlier works. The piece for choir is amazing, rich with a garden of accentuating orchestral support for the soft yet forceful lead taken by the choir.  It seems like a natural extension of his vividly expressive style. Those preferring his more radicalized compositions can enjoy Ungemaltes Bild (1994, 16-minutes) and Frau/Stimme for Soprano and Orchestra (1989, 20-minutes) on this CD, each of which exhibits a kind of fascinating, seemingly random, sonic experimentation or sound painting that made Rihm famous.

It is a challenge for someone such as myself living in the countryside removed from high culture to keep up with what is happening in classical music with the same ease as I keep up with, say, Neil Young or Coldplay. I often discover new CDs by my favored living composers a year or so after they are available and, even then, when a classical CD is finally produced the music itself is often years old. But in 2013 I managed to acquire Rihm's latest orchestral CD as an import from the United Kingdom - a collection of four "pendant" pieces intended to be performed before the four symphonies by Johannes Brahms.

Each pendant (ranging from 10 to 12 minutes in length) is inspired and composed in the general key of its corresponding Brahms symphony. Although Rihm insists that he never quotes Brahms directly, my own experience of these pieces is that you can clearly hear echoes of phrases and themes from the corresponding symphony in each pendant. It helps if you are familiar with Brahms' four wonderful symphonies. You can more readily see how Rihm simultaneously incorporates elements of each while also breathing fresh, modern life into their musical ideas. Collectively, Rihm released them as Symphonie "Nahe Fern" ("proximate distance"). They were composed in 2011-2012. As a "symphony" Rihm placed a short piece for baritone based upon a text by Goethe. There is nothing especially stunning about these works. They represent a continuation of Rihm's more recent lyrical style, a combination of flowing melody and precise technique that yields a balance between the rigorous sonics of Rihm's earlier style and the emotional resonance of the majority of his recent compositions.

It is impossible even in a post of this length to go through all the Wolfgang Rihm available out there. There are numerous CDs and DVDs I did not acquire and most likely never will. There is only so much money I am willing to invest in one artist and Rihm's offerings are numerous. Of these, most significantly, there is Rihm's recent opera based loosely on the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. My interest in that composition and its subject matter might eventually lead me to add it to my collection even though, as long-time readers know, I have little taste for opera. Another piece that has been performed but has yet to be officially recorded is Rihm's 13th String Quartet which was composed in 2012. You can enjoy it in this YouTube video.

Rihm is obviously a prolific, energetic force in contemporary classical music. As I mentioned, most of his compositions have yet to be performed let alone recorded and his present output exceeds almost any other living composer I know. His style is dynamic and ever-changing from new simplicity to expressionism. His influences range from Brahms and Mahler to Berg and Webern to Carter and Cage, truly a unique convergence of many artistic streams. His command and competence along with his diversity makes him most appealing to me. I will be keeping a keen eye out for whatever comes next from this outstanding classical composer. He enriches my life, which is what music is all about.

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