Wolfgang Rihm: La musique creuse le ciel

GrauSchumacher Piano Duo; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Rundel (NEOS10721)

29 September 2009 3 stars

RihmWolfgang Rihm has emerged as one of the most respected German composers of his day, with credentials that appeal to avant-garde and not-so-avant-garde audiences alike. Though the music in his corpus can be brash, brooding and explosive by turns, as would be expected for 'serious' contemporary music, its range is encompassing enough, and the compositions put together with such happy coincidence of inspiration and craft, as to provide the audience with many potential points of entry. It is a corpus in which different pieces appeal to different people for different reasons, and probably not every piece appeals to everyone.

This stylistic variety of Rihm's work – he never seems to remain on the same trajectory for more than a handful of works, rather veering off wildly in reaction to whatever takes his fancy at the time – is a feature that has been seen as a negative one by some. How should one rightly assess a composer whose adherence to the force of whim has overtaken the serious responsibility of having a clear, homogenous style, a style that becomes gradually more developed as the composer matures over the years, moving towards the flowering of a late style (yawn… sorry) at the end of his or her career? It might be said that the only consistency with Rihm has been the inconsistency of his approach, but it is worth noting that that is a consistency all the same, and perhaps quite a strong one.

For others, as mentioned, the stylistic heterogeneity of Rihm's work (which nonetheless displays some of the same formal concerns over the course of its diverse works) can only be a good thing. There is an obvious delight for Rihm in the explorative nature of the creative process – the composer as one who ventures along the outposts, using the occasion of the work to cast off in different directions, exploring the space made available by the musical work, all the while anchored by a concern for surprise, adventure and craftsmanship. A Romantic image, of course, but one suited to a music that could be characterised as very much continuing in the Romantic tradition (to be over reductive about it).

The works here are from two distinct phases of the composer's career: La musique creuse le ciel, from the late seventies, and Über-Schrift, finished in 2003. They give a snapshot overview of Rihm's work so far, the former marking his arrival as a considerable new force, the latter showing his work as a relative elder on the twenty-first century European contemporary scene.

La musique creuse le ciel, for two pianos and large orchestra, is a work Rihm began composing as a precocious and self-confident twenty-five year-old. Expressionistic fervour is here mixed with explicit enthusiasm for the late symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler. The two pianists carry on, over the long single-movement course of the work (thirty-five minutes), a dialogue with the orchestra and each other. Most active interlocutor in the orchestral forces is the percussion, which reacts with acuteness of nerve to the contrasting atmospheres conjured up by the piano parts. There is a lot of contrast in texture throughout, and the maturity the work shows belies its composer's years at the time.

Steady and bright, the GrauSchumacher Piano Duo are just as confident in their playing, and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, conducted by Peter Rundel, bring the dynamic through perfectly – although the textures are occasionally a little hazy, the engineering not quite laser bright. One of the main interests in this is historical, in showing the traits of Rihm's work at an early stage of his career. The music is a little dated, and of its time to be sure; but perhaps it says something of the state of things compositionally at present to remark that it is not a million miles away from the orchestral work of one or two other young composers of the moment.

Über-Schrift, for two pianos, makes a good contrast with the busy and explosive opener in being mostly quiet and for chamber forces. Indeed, the contrast with the opener is comprehensive, highlighting well that multifarious – capricious even – facet of Rihm's compositional style spoken of.

A silence opens up at the beginning of the piece, minimally spaced-apart notes and chord fragments ebbing around in ever-changing dynamics, quietness predominantly, the reverb pedal held depressed on both pianos as the sound events continuously flicker and decay. These short snappy quarks of sound are gradually expanded into longer motivic forms as the piece progresses, moving from what at the outset is not too compelling to a hypnotic swirl. GrauSchumacher are again excellent and showcase well their talents, showing immense concentration and faultless touch. The admixture of playful exuberance and exuberant violence that is a common feature of Rihm's work is rarely more clear than it is here, the work achieving an unobtrusive delirium, like an excited kitten playing with a half-mauled bird on a sunny day.

This piece, part of a recent cycle that also includes In-Schrift for orchestra and Nach-Schrift for ensemble, is the main reason to buy this CD. Moving from small shards of sound to larger fragments, it is a tantalising work, helped by a vivid recording; and gives proof, if any were needed, of Rihm's unflagging vitality.

By Liam Cagney