Sacred music is by no means at the centre of his creative output, and Wolfgang Rihm had actually intended to »take off his monastic habit«, as he himself recalls, when he completed the Deus Passus, his Passion works according to St. Luke which premiered in 2000. Yet things turned out very differently. Increasingly fascinated by a suggestion to compose several A cappella works for the Passion Week, he committed the Sieben Passions-Texte – Latin motets in the spirit of the past and in the knowledge of their irretrievability – to paper over the course of the following years. »Sing it as if it were old music«, Rihm had advised his commissioners from Singer Pur, »then it will be clear that this isn’t what it is at all«. Never before had the thin-skinned sound dreamer woven such a secretive tapestry of voices, ambiguous, phantasmagoric, forgotten between the eras, vulnerable and wounded at the same time. Music that makes one shudder. [Source]
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.
The taxi driver knows immediately who I’m going to see when I tell him the address I need in Karlsruhe. “That’s Professor Rihm, right?” I’m a wee bit bemused that someone I’ve never met in this beautiful, stately town near Germany’s French and Swiss borders knows that I’m here to meet its most famous musical resident – Wolfgang Rihm, one of the most brilliant, inventive, and prolific composers alive today. “We pick him up all the time. He doesn’t drive, so he knows us all pretty well. He’s a really nice guy.”
Rihm belongs to Karlsruhe. He was born and raised here, he sang in the city’s choirs, played the church organs, and now teaches at the conservatoire. The flat where he lives is a stone’s throw from his first family home.
Rihm, 57, is a big, hearty, and big-hearted man. “Let me show you my whisky collection,” he says five minutes after I arrive. He’s proud of a handful of rare single malts that have probably never been in the same drinks cabinet together, and we share an astonishingly good 1982 Glenfarclas at his work desk. The desk is the only clear space in Rihm’s rooms, each of which is lined with floor-to-ceiling bookcases. On the floor are piles of CDs and manuscript paper. A Steinway grand piano groans under the weight of scores, books and yet more CDs. It’s an orderly chaos, I suggest. He smiles. “That’s the combination I need. The one corrects the other, so it achieves a kind of equilibrium. Like in my music.”
Since he composed his St Luke Passion for Stuttgart 10 years ago, choral works seem to have figured more and more prominently in Wolfgang Rihm’s output. The Hänssler disc includes one of the most substantial of them, the “cantata hermetica”, Quid Est Deus, composed in 2007. It sets 24 Latin definitions of God as a series of choral statements, often with minimal orchestral accompaniment. There’s an austere, hieratic quality about the writing, and a Stravinsky-like feel to some of the harmony (deliberately or not, a recurring progression almost directly quotes from the Symphony of Psalms), though the orchestral outbursts that occasionally punctuate the sequence have a highly wrought expressionist edge. It’s a compellingly concentrated piece, very different from the sparer, earlier works on the disc, which belong to the period in the late 1980s and early 90s when Rihm was influenced by Luigi Nono’s late works. These use spatial effects, dispersing the orchestra around the performing space: Ungemaltes Bild (Unpainted Picture) attempts to convey in sound the spirit of a watercolour series by Nolde, while Frau/Stimme sets a Heiner Müller text for two sopranos, embedding it in fractured, halting orchestral textures from which it emerges piecemeal.
[via The Guardian]
“Excuse my English,” Anne-Sophie Mutter says with a laugh. “I know it’s rather flowery, but that’s as good as it gets.” As it turns out she speaks it better than I do; her German must be a model of rhetorical control.
Still, it’s clear why, as one of the finest violinists in the world, she might feel her second language ranks poorly as a mode of expression. It is our good fortune in Abu Dhabi that we’ll get to hear her fingers do the talking when she comes to the Emirates Palace to play a trio of violin trios this weekend as part of the Abu Dhabi Classics season.
For now it’s only worth noting that, in music as in speech, Mutter seems to have been reconciling herself to floweriness.