Wolfgang Rihm Volume 1 Review

Album. Released 2007.  

BBC Review

Volume one of this major post-war German composer's works given an emotional performance.

Andrew McGregor 2007

Wolfgang Rihm was born in 1952, and since the 1970s he’s become a major part of post-war Germany’s musical re-orientation. Rihm gradually turned away from using rigorous systems and structures to generate compositions, seeking instead expressive immediacy. Which is not to say that there’s not a complex exploration of harmony, dynamics and rhythm; Rihm is not one of those seeking a new simplicity - but he embraces the unexpected, looking for a directional freedom that celebrates the unforeseen. As Rihm puts it himself: ‘it’s not what’s systematically derived but what arrives unexpectedly that gives life to art.’

The Hänssler Classic label has just launched a Wolfgang Rihm Edition, an ambitious undertaking given the rate at which Rihm composes - and that at the age of 55 he’s definitely not slowing down. Volume one has just arrived, works dating from 1980’s Erster Doppelgesang, a double concerto for viola cello and orchestra, which has what Rihm calls a ‘covert choreography…Rimbaud and Verlaine on the banks of the Neckar River – perfectly imaginable.’ But this is the poetry of violence, and Rihm admits that the shattering side-drum outbursts that destroy the ending were composed ‘from the depths of a wretchedly quaking uncertainty.’

Dark waters also run through the most impressive work on the disc: Styx and Lethe for cello and orchestra, named after two rivers of the Underworld. The Styx – the River of No Return, where the shades of the dead gathered to seek passage to the afterlife from the ferryman, Charon - and the Lethe: the River of Forgetfulness, for once you’d drunk its waters, you were left with no memory for the rest of eternity. Rihm’s cello concerto was composed for the 1998 Donaueschingen Festival and cellist Lucas Fels; the disc proclaims this as the world premier performance, with Hans Zender conducting the Southwest German Radio Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg. Rihm was asked for programme notes for the first performance, which he obviously didn’t want to provide…and instead what the festival organisers got was an amusing, satirical reaction to being forced to write notes for his music. But it’s worth saying that the Underworld river reference gives more than a clue to the nature of the way the work flows, and the deep surges of malevolent energy that sustain it. The recording is as darkly gripping as the performance.

Two other concertos complete the disc: Music for Oboe and Orchestra, from the early 90s, re-defined by a long solo oboe introduction Rihm added in 2002…and Dritte Musik for violin and orchestra, in memory of an artist friend whose paintings Rihm says he often listened to – from their innermost chords to their surface sounds. He’s interested in breaking down barriers between the arts: ‘Am I a writer when I try to set up characters in music?’, Rihm asks…to which the answer after hearing such a colourfully-staged drama and haunting epilogue has to be ‘yes’.

‘Music must be full of emotion, the emotion full of complexity’ Rihm wrote in 1974…and these four first recordings are ample proof that it’s an imperative he’s been satisfying with brilliance and rare imagination ever since.

This recording is Disc Of The Week on Radio 3's CD Review

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