Monday 13 May 2013

Highly recommended new release from Harmonia Mundi of Wolfgang Rihm’s glorious Symphony ‘Nähe fern’

German composer Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952) was born in Karlsruhe, a city near the French and Swiss borders where he still lives. He completed his studies in music theory with Hans H. Eggebrecht in 1972 and just two years later saw the première of his work Morphonie for orchestra and solo string quartet at the Donaueschingen Festival, which launched his career as a prominent figure in the European new music scene.

Rihm is professor of composition at the Hochschule für Musik, Karlsruhe . He also sits on a number of influential committees in Germany and has a say in decisions affecting the working conditions of his fellow musicians. Rihm’s compositions now exceed 400 works and by combining contemporary techniques with the emotional volatility of Mahler and of Schoenberg's early expressionist period, his music has been regarded by many as a revolt against the avant-garde generation of Boulez and Stockhausen, with whom he studied in 1972–73.

At the age of 25 he composed a chamber opera Jakob Lenz that has since become, probably, the most frequently produced piece of contemporary music theatre in Germany. This was followed by a series of large-scale operas, Die Hamletmaschine, Die Eroberung von Mexico and Das Gehege as well as a work of experimental music theatre Séraphin. In the late 1970s and early 1980s his name was associated with the movement called New Simplicity. His work still continues in an expressionist vein, though the influence of Luigi Nono, Helmut Lachenmann and Morton Feldman, amongst others, has affected his style significantly.

In addition to his staged works, Rihm has written vocal and choral works, orchestral works including symphonies and concertos, chamber works including string quartets and works for piano.

In March 2010 the BBC Symphony Orchestra  featured the music of Rihm in one of their 'total immersion' weekends at the Barbican Centre, London . Recordings from this weekend were used for three 'Hear and Now' programmes on BBC Radio 3 dedicated to his work. Anne-Sophie Mutter premiered his violin concerto Lichtes Spiel (Light Games) in Avery Fisher Hall with the New York Philharmonic on 18 November 2010.

Of significance are the compositions which take their cue from music of past centuries such as Bach, Schumann and Brahms. Harmonia Mundi have released a live recording of Rihm’s Symphonie ‘Nähe Fern’ where the composer again demonstrates his affinity with Brahms. The title is from a poem by Goethe which Brahms also set to music. It was written at the suggestion of Numa Bischof Ullman, the director of the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester and the Lucerne Festival, who asked Rihm to compose four orchestral works, one of which could be played before each of Brahms’ symphonies. These were premiered over the course of a year between June 2011 and June 2012 and, on 20th August 2012, performed with the orchestration of Rihm’s setting for voice and piano of Geothe’s Dammrung senke sich von oben, to form a complete symphony. The performers on that occasion are the same as those on this new release, the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester conducted by James Gaffigan with the baritone, Hans Christoph Begemann.

HMC 902153
The title of the symphony, Nähe fern, or proximate distance, indicates that, whilst Rihm allows us to hear the harmonies, motifs and characters associated with Brahms, this is very much his own composition.

The opening movement of Symphony ‘Nähe fern’,  Nähe fern 1 starts with a ruminating sound in the cellos and basses, but slowly broadens into a melody, still dark, as the rest of the orchestra joins, reaching an anguished small climax. It very much has the feel of Schoenberg’s early expressionist music filtered through a new tonally free style. Throughout this movement the music heaves and shifts tonally as well as dynamically. As the movement progresses through more climaxes there is a well-known sound in the orchestra that is difficult to define. It is the ghost of Brahms just hidden in the texture. There is a return to the opening motif in the cellos and basses as timpani strokes bring the movement quietly to an end.

The second movement, Dämmrung senkte sich von oben (Dusk has Fallen from Above) has a brief orchestral opening before the baritone Hans Christoph Begemann joins in this short setting of Goethe. It has a twilight feel again with Schoenberg’s atonal nature, with some lovely woodwind moments. Begemann has a lovely rich tone, so very flexible in this music.

Nähe fern 2 starts with a growl from the basses before the most distinctive sound of a Brahmsian melodic motif emerges. This is glorious, no pastiche, as it is entirely Rihm’s own distinctive creation, Schoenberg filtered through Brahms’ melodic quality in the style of Rihm. Rhythmically it touches on Brahms as it speeds up then slows before a great climax. There is a rich tapestry of sounds, fascinating to listen to, with the various lines weaving their way through this intoxicating music.  There are mysterious brass sounds before a string phrase brings the movement to an end.

The dynamic opening of the third movement Nähe fern 3 has a beautifully luminous orchestration with the subtle Brahmsian intervals and motifs appearing. This is the nearest to a scherzo of any of the movements, with numerous outbursts in this volatile music. Halfway through, the music becomes even more volatile, with brass interventions. However, it soon quietens as a lovely string passage emerges with lovely woodwind sounds. There are further outbursts but still the calm manages to prevail as the music falls to lower strings and a quiet transition to the final movement, Nähe fern 4 where there are more outbursts before the calm prevails.

There is a quiet and gentle rising and falling melody and the music has little forward surges with some beautiful textures weaving through. The tempo increases in a Brahmsian rhythm before a climax with percussion. It soon calms but individual brass and woodwind herald a short climax. Midway through the movement there is a mysterious section with percussion sounds leading to a flowing section. Brahms still lurks and, despite outbursts and percussion, there is a sense of mystery with some atmospheric sounds from the orchestra as the movement works its way towards its end, which arrives on a quiet brass chord.

This symphony is an outstanding success, one of those works that sounds as though it has always existed. It never loses its flow and sense of forward motion. The performance by the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester, conducted by James Gaffigan, couldn't be bettered. This new release is highly recommended coming as it does with excellent sound, informative booklet notes and full texts and translations.

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