Recorded August 2001 in Sendesaal des Hessischen Rundfunks, Frankfurt
CD No: DG 471 558-2 Duration: 51 minutes Reviewed: October 2002
Wolfgang Rihm: Jagden und Formen
Reviewed by Steve Lomas
“In music, we never say the same thing twice, because the saying is also the thing”. Stravinsky’s profound observation could be said to be at the heart of Wolfgang Rihm’s recent cycle of works in which the pursuit of form becomes the form itself. The present work, premiered in Berlin in November 2001, takes elements of its predecessors, Gedrängte Form, Gejagte Form and Verborgene Formen (the last two already vividly recorded on KAIROS 0012072KAI), and quite audibly takes them on a fresh journey whose destination is only discovered when it is reached. And what an astonishing journey it is.
Although their soundworlds are quite different, Rihm’s position in Germany is analogous to Birtwistle’s in the UK – as high priest of an unapologetic modernism that is highly personal and non-schematic. Rihm’s vast output displays a marked tendency to create clusters of works which share a common stratagem. On the evidence of Jagden und Formen, and the other works in the cycle, Rihm (born 1952) has latterly achieved a sovereign mastery of the art of composition – again like Birtwistle – which places him firmly at the centre of 20th- and 21st-century musical thought.
Jagden und Formen is set in motion by the arresting sound of two blurred, overlapping violins engaged in a kind of dislocated folk-fiddling. What follows over the next 50 minutes is an unstoppable torrent of forward motion which practically never lets up (Colin Matthews’s Suns Dance and Broken Symmetry explore similar terrain) and which pulls the listener unresistingly in its wake. The work is a species of toccata which propels a fractured, spluttering line through a bewildering variety of incident, all the while maintaining a level of manic activity that beggars belief. Even ’contrasting episodes’ such as the one early on led by the cor anglais convey the impression that the torrent has merely gone underground momentarily, only to burst to the surface again with renewed energy.
The only point at which the whirligig is stilled comes after about fifteen minutes, when pools of silence shockingly flood in, in a manner similar in effect to the end of Stravinsky’s Les Noces. The opening violin motif reappears on other instruments at several critical points and heralds a sequence of illusory climaxes toward the end of the work, the last of which – a breathtaking passage of blazing brass underpinned by wild drumming – evaporates into a surreal final gesture which is nevertheless deeply satisfying. The exhausted listener can now look back and see the work’s form as the by-product sediment of the journey it undertook.
Rihm’s ultimate achievement in Jagden und Formen is to marshal what could have been a disparate profusion of material into a single urgent trajectory. In so doing, he has produced a blistering but also accessible experience which is mandatory listening to anyone looking for the cutting edge of contemporary musical thought. The unflagging commitment and virtuosity of Ensemble Modern under Dominique My is equal to the outrageous demands of Rihm’s writing. The impact of the work is further enhanced by recorded sound of quite staggering clarity and immediacy, in which every strand of the music can be heard, even where Rihm’s ’overpainting’ technique is at its densest.
One could have wished for another work, but no-one listening to this disc is likely to feel short-changed.