Wolfgang Rihm at 60

Zolinsky, London Sinfonietta/Fischer

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 25 January 2012 4 stars

RihmThe London Sinfonietta celebrated German composer Wolfgang Rihm's sixtieth birthday this evening at the Southbank Centre with a tight and punchy programme, which took in three recent chamber pieces from Rihm, alongside music by two of his most prominent students, Jörg Widmann and Rebecca Saunders.

As is appropriate for an evening celebrating Rihm, the programme offered up various perspectives on the phenomenon of re-composition or revision that so heavily characterises the composer's metier. Within and across pieces, whether it be the ever-evolving Chiffre cycle (from which the slightly unremarkable Nacht-Schrift was heard tonight, featuring impressive soloist Andrew Zolinsky), or the internally snowballing and recursive Jagden und Formen, Rihm's music seek to explore not finality but processuality, a desire reflected in Rihm's desire for his pieces to be understood as zustände (conditions or states), and not as finite statements.

The opening Ricercare - music in memoriam Luigi Nono expressed the shifting and slippery contours of this conceit rather vividly. The piece contains in it not only remnants of Nono (and thus of all the styles important to that sadly deceased composer), but also tastes and foretastes of the other four pieces Rihm has written in his memory. The piece, or 'condition', is heavily composed out of Nono's language; all of Nono is here, from the silences between delicately parsed out phrases, to the infra-serial organisational approach, to the hushed but timbrally meticulous gestures.

In its mastery of approach and its directness of homage the music steps away from pastiche into the richer realm of parody (surely a vital mode for Rihm), though in its tiniest details of articulation and weighting it falls short, just a little, of Nono's astonishing musical gracefulness. This falling short had little to do with the Sinfonietta’s performance, which was as soft-footed and methodical as the music warranted.

The performers' deliberation was repeated in Quartet by Saunders, a piece written for the rather tantalising line-up of double bass, bass clarinet, accordion and piano. Quartet explores slight gradations of weight and colour around a central pitch slung low across the three sustaining instruments, before crystallising somewhat in a final extended climax organised around a repeated piano cluster in the right hand. Sepulchral low tones wisped out and across the ensemble, benumbing the listener rather mysteriously.

Widmann's Dubairische Tänze, which followed, was a wholly different proposition. It thinks and rethinks the notion of (Bavarian) carnival and popular dances such as the zwiefacher and the ländler, setting these alternately into exciting scenarios of tumbling downbeats or, on the other hand, glistening metallic lullabies. Whilst the conception and execution is never quite as original as in the recent and rather similar Feldman’s Sixpenny Editions by Gerald Barry, the effect is well achieved nonetheless. Thierry Fischer, at the ensemble’s helm, looked to be having a whale of a time.

The concert closed with Rihm's Will Sound More Again, an update or revisioning of his earlier Will Sound More. Like Jagden und Formen, this piece moves inexorably towards some mysterious goal - or at least its agitated mutations of a few central motifs seem to suggest such a purpose. In any case, the piece, like the performance this evening, manages its devilish balance of agitation and precision very well. Its forward rush even intensifies towards the close, suggesting some drastic new resolution or compulsion which will only be confronted in a further iteration of the music at some point in the future.

At its most interesting Rihm's mise en abyme music reveals and shows in a new light the metacompositional underpinnings of the very act of composition itself - not to mention those of listening likewise. This was a fun, engaging and stimulating concert.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Wolfgang Rihm

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