Sunday, December 11, 2016

Listening to Rihm: Two Other Movements

I have previously posted about my explorations of classical composer Wolfgang Rihm's vast repertoire of music.   In early 2016, the seventh installation of SWR Music's Rihm – Edition Series was made available in the US.  I purchased it several months ago and have since spent time listening to it off and on.  This CD features the world-premiere recording of Two Other Movements, a large scale 40-minute work which Rihm composed in 2004 as well as several shorter pieces from the 1980's.  I find everything on the CD accessible and enjoyable, but, like most of Rihm's work, it is an acquired taste in modern classical composition.

Once again, Rihm is a prolific composer and most of his compositions have yet to be recorded.  This CD is an excellent example of how Rihm views his music as essentially part of a collective, almost continuous body of work, a singular artistic path, wherein Rihm takes inspiration from his previous compositions to create new material.  Two Other Movements derives its title from the large assortment of symphonic movements Rihm has composed through the years.  From the perspective of his body of work, these truly are just two additional movements to an extended exploration of his quest for orchestral expression.

I am not musically qualified to understand or make assumptions about the technical aspects of the compositions. I just recognize when I enjoy something and this CD, though distinctly modern, is enjoyable from beginning to end. According to the accompanying CD booklet: “In the course of time, Rihm has vastly differentiated his tonal language, taking it now into the realms for more melodious-expressive sound pattern, now into dissonant, almost noisy agglomerations.”

“Rihm proves that it is, in fact, quite possible to integrate audibly fast, even stormily agitated sections; simply listen to the march and toccata episodes in the first of his Two Other Movement. Many passages also seem traditional in that they take up the ‘filigree work’ of the old Classical and Romantic masters, that is, the interplay if individual instruments and instrumental groups; Rihm also enjoys coupling woodwinds with strings, or excessively exploiting the deep underpinnings of the low brass.  On the other hand, there are sophisticated shadings in the percussive interjections that have nothing whatever to do with Romanticism.

Two Other Movements (2005) is a composition commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra that premiered under the baton of Lorin Maazel in New York in March 2005.  The title is intended to signify that every new work is, as it were, a commentary on the one preceding it; the ‘two other movements’ therefore make up a continuation of those completed beforehand.  This arises from Rihm’s notion of having a huge block of music inside him, from which he again and again chisels out individual works.  Hence it is no wonder that there are tonal-stylistic correspondences even between works, like those presented here, that are separated by decades.”

Accompanying this main composition are Abkehr (1985) and Schattenstuck (1982-1984). The former is an 8-minute piece written as “supplement” to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and intended to be preformed prior to that great work.  It is largely a sentimental work with harsh accents.  The latter work is in seven short sections with an overall length of 20-plus minutes.  According to the CD booklet: “Rihm expressly forbid the movements to be performed individually, only conceding the possibility of changing their order, whereby the final movement still has to be the seventh.  This concession seems to sound very encouraging, however, so it is probably best to leave the order as is…”

The CD was generally well-received by the critics. Gramophone called it: “a telling blend of rawness and concentration. The result is an ear-opening demonstration of the remarkable Rihm phenomenon.” The Guardian dubbed the CD as filled with “fine first-ever recordings.”

Two Other Movements begins semi-melodically with deep, almost foreboding bass.  Nevertheless, there is a peaceful and contemplative aspect to this piece, simultaneously tinged with angst and splendor.  It reminds me of some of Shostakovich’s great symphonic orchestration.  The almost 27-minute first movement features all parts of the orchestra, each developed slowly with explosive accents where the entire orchestra seems to alternate in agony or rapture.  I find this music highly accessible yet sophisticated.  There is no trace of nostalgia or sentimentality here even though large sections of the score are beautiful. The horns and woodwinds are particularly noteworthy throughout. The second movement is an 8-minute continuation of the themes and variations of the prior music but in an andante tempo as opposed to the moderato-allegro of the first, making for a more relaxed listening experience.

Abkehr features several moments of developed tension as well as vaguely quoted passages from Mahler’s Ninth. The seven-part Schattenstuck (first part here and last part here) is a stylistic compliment to all the other music presented, very accessible yet complex.  These works, written some 20 years prior to Two Other Movements give context to the larger work and demonstrate how Rihm still explores similar sonic landscapes within his vast body of work in a timeless manner. Rihm expresses many influences throughout his career and this particular CD is a rewarding example of just one of his many avenues of musical expression. 

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