With more than 400 works to his name, Wolfgang Rihm is among the most prolific living composers. The BBC Symphony Orchestra exposed us to a fraction of this oeuvre in the form of one of its Total Immersion Saturdays at the Barbican — his 58th birthday, as it happened. The previous evening, at LSO St Lukes, the Arditti Quartet had given a mainly Rihm programme as part of the same venture.
Rihm was present to attend the concerts and be interviewed in the Mozart Room by Ivan Hewett, an interesting exchange, marred only by aqueous amplification. He came over as a hugely genial figure, unassuming yet instinctively confident, insightful yet down-to-earth; an insatiable creator, who, though a great revisiter and recycler of scores (he once said: “Double bar lines at the end are really only vertically extended colons”) is free from fuss, from fidgety perfectionism.
He just keeps writing, and, rather as with Schubert, whom he resembles a touch, it is daunting to contemplate merely the physical labour of producing so many scores. The volume of his music, and a certain stylistic flexibility he allows himself, make it difficult, I find, to get a purchase on his achievement, to sum him up or even describe his manner, if he has one. I’ve heard numerous works by him over the years (right back to the early Almeida Festival staging of the opera Jakob Lenz), but would not readily think of his music, or other people’s, as “Rihmian” in the way that the adjective “Birt wistlean” repeatedly offers itself.
The first of two Rihm works played by the Ardittis, his single-span String Quartet No 5 — dis ingenuously subtitled “Ohne Titel”, as if quartets usually did have titles — sounded as though the most extreme aspects of Bartok’s quartet style — the crunching dissonances and pizzicati, the rebarbative continuity — had been taken to a new and unsuspected extreme.