London Sinfonietta: Wolfgang Rihm at 60

Rihm
Ricercare (Music in memoriam Luigi Nono) [UK premiere]
Saunders
Quartet
Widmann
Dubairische Tänze [UK premiere]
Rihm
Nach-Schrift [UK premiere]
Will Sound More Again [UK premiere]

Andrew Zolinsky (piano)

London Sinfonietta
Thierry Fischer


Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 24 January, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Thierry Fischer. Photograph: LephotoMarch 13 marks sixty years of Wolfgang Rihm. The German composer, born a stone’s-throw from the borders with France and Switzerland, has assumed a position of respect and authority in the world of contemporary music and his pupils have become teachers in their own right. The London Sinfonietta’s anniversary tribute proved his impact on a select few, placing his own works alongside pieces by those he has taught.

Rihm’s music framed the concert, beginning with the belated UK premiere of a work more than two decades old, and ending with a freshly extended piece that Rihm has returned to repeatedly in the last few years. He’s a hugely prolific composer; any selection from his body of work will only grant a glimpse at his range. As it happened, two of the works presented occupied a similar world of rhythmic freneticism, so perhaps their pairing proved too much of a good thing. Nach-Schrift (2004) and Will Sound More Again (2011) both hurtle onwards, dipping briefly only to catch breath before charging on. Nach-Schrift is a pulsing car-chase of a score, with piano and orchestra hurtling hell-for-leather through its ten-minute duration – Andrew Zolinsky kept a close eye on Thierry Fischer’s calm direction while acoustic fragments flew around him. This score promotes the piano to a leading role, but the instrument is there, less prominently, in Will Sound More Again, an extended version of work that started out, in 2005, as Will Sound, becoming Will Sound More in 2010 and now stretched again in a version more than twice the length of the original. The energy rarely abates, but it sounds rather unvaried.

Ricercare (1990) – one of a number of pieces composed by Rihm to the memory of Luigi Nono – has the tread of a determined procession, replacing the haze of its beginning with jabs from wind and brass. Quiet sounds are sustained beneath the outbursts; a tissue of delicate sonority that ensures the continuity of the 9-minute span. The sparkling harmonics of the work’s conclusion foreshadowed the sparseness of the piece that followed: Rebecca Saunders’s Quartet (1997-8), for clarinet, accordion, piano and double bass. Saunders, a British composer based in Berlin, studied with Rihm in the early 1990s, and her concern for finely weighed sounds and textures would seem to stem from Rihm’s example. The material given to the unusual combination of instruments is unpacked slowly – masterfully played in this instance – but at the work’s heart is an unexpected fragment of melody: ironically, its placement seems more daring than all the squeaks, parps and mumbles around it. Saunders’s soundworld here is Webern-like in its austerity, and as precisely judged as it is, the joylessness of it all becomes gruelling.

Another pupil of Rihm’s, Jörg Widmann, had the distinction of contributing the only piece of the evening to prompt laughter from the audience. Widmann was certainly in on the joke, fondly recalling as well as gently mocking the popular dance music of his native Bavaria in Dubairische Tänze. A stay in Dubai prompted the piece, but it isn’t about the Arabian city at all. Familiar Strauss waltzes are picked up and toyed with, though some kind of gremlin often seems to have crept into the score and shuffles details of pitch and rhythm around. At its heart are some Ives-like night-time pictures, quite touching in their delicacy, but Bavarian bluster wins out. It received a typically outstanding performance from the London Sinfonietta; a shame, then, that none of the featured composers could attend to hear their works played quite so well.


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