Turnage & Rihm

0 of 5 stars

Études and Elegies [A Quick Blast; Uninterrupted Sorrow; A Quiet Life]
Canzona per Sonare “Uber die Linie” V
Cuts and Dissolves, Orchesterskizzen

Michael Svoboda (alto trombone)

Orchestre Symphonique de la Monnaie
Kazushi Ono

Live recordings in Bozar, Brussels – 23 March 2003 (Benjamin) and 17, 19 & 20 March 2004

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: June 2005
2564 60244-2
Duration: 68 minutes

This CD documents the 2004 Ars Musica festival in Brussels, which that year featured the highly contrasting figures of Mark-Anthony Turnage and Wolfgang Rihm, with a bonus snapshot of George Benjamin from the previous year’s festival. Thus British eclecticism sits cheek by jowl with continental high modernism in the kind of kaleidoscopic programming that is the very essence of the venerable institution that is the contemporary music festival. And a very stimulating confrontation it turns out to be.

Études and Elegies is an orchestral triptych that Turnage unveiled in piecemeal fashion between 2000 and 2002. The opening A Quick Blast (the title could have been identified as a Turnage piece in a blindfold test) is scored for woodwinds, brass and percussion and would make a perfect introduction for a first-time Turnage listener. The skittish swirling textures that begin the work catch the ear immediately and reappear toward the end. Amid much striking invention, a Zappa-like theme bursts in from time to time, a reminder of how wide Turnage casts his stylistic net.

Taking its title from a Joni Mitchell song, the central panel Uninterrupted Sorrow is scored for large orchestra and charts a trajectory from the highly characteristic opening gestures – widely spaced chords underpinning a high keening lament – through a gradual accumulation of incident to a surprisingly upbeat dance-like passage and a climax of great power, concluding with a sustained release of tension. The final and short A Quiet Life is for strings and to my ears has something of the rhetoric of 20th-century American pioneers such as Roy Harris. Attractive as it is on its own terms, I don’t hear this music as the natural outcome of what has gone before and, in the manner of Debussy’s orchestral Images, I foresee a better future for the three panels as separate pieces.

It was a statistical probability that the vast output of Wolfgang Rihm would sooner or later encompass an alto trombone concerto and Canzona per Sonare of 2002 is that concerto, pitting the solo instrument against two orchestral groups, although on disc there is little sense of a spatial element. The work is a kind of extended adagio with localised disturbances. It is not always easy to discern where we are going but the journey is never dull and the landscape is endlessly changing. The style attests to Rihm’s reputation as a high priest of undiluted Modernism, but the older Rihm is not afraid to allow the occasional tonal/modal element to surface out of the predominantly dissonant and dark-hued textures. A tense, brooding piece. Michael Svoboda lifts the work aloft with a deeply committed and searching performance.

Rihm’s much earlier Cuts and Dissolves (1976-77) is in five movements of which the middle one is itself in five parts. There are allusions to cinematic editing techniques, particularly in the later movements. A furtive, nocturnal feel pervades the first two movements, while the third and fourth introduce more dramatic elements. The last one seems to be proposing a return to the spare textures of the work’s beginning but an apocalyptic ending wrong-foots us in classic Rihm fashion. Although Rihm was only 24 when he began Cuts and Dissolves, his ear for strange but felicitous textures and the supremely fluent writing are already fully-formed, as is the debt to Germanic Expressionism.

Benjamin’s exquisite Olicantus is pure balm after a double exposure to the Rihm soundworld. In my review of the London Sinfonietta’s recording of this 50th-birthday tribute to Oliver Knussen, I expressed the hope that it would survive as more than an occasional piece. I need not have worried – this is its third recording within a year, although I prefer the more languorous approach adopted by Knussen and the composer himself to Ono’s swifter reading.

There is little to fault in the performances and the lively feel of this well-established festival is vividly caught. The recording has a very wide dynamic range, which entailed some juggling of the volume control. Warner is to be congratulated for this enterprising release, which is warmly recommended.

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