Total Immersion – Wolfgang Rihm (2)

Schwarzer und roter Tanz
Konzert in einem Satz [UK premiere]
Das Gehege [UK premiere; sung in German with English surtitles]

Steven Isserlis (cello)

Rayanne Dupuis (soprano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
André de Ridder

Reviewed by: Andrew Maisel

Reviewed: 13 March, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Wolfgang RihmThis final concert of the two-day “Total Immersion” celebration of the music of Wolfgang Rihm (born 1952) featured powerful performances of three works.

The orchestral fireball that is Schwarzer und roter Tanz (Black and Red Dance) provided a barnstorming opening. If any work sums up Rihm’s reputation as the most “expressively violent” composer of recent times then this is it. A 15-minute distillation of Rihm’s early-1980’s ballet Tutuguri, it is derived from Antonin Artaud’s radio drama “Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu” (To have done with the judgement of God), a play so shocking at the time – 1947 – with its scatological references and anti-religious rhetoric that it was deemed unfit for broadcast, only getting a public performance thirty years later. Artaud’s grotesque vision is captured by Rihm in a score of ritualistic brutality, full of pounding rhythms and pulsating ostinatos. There’s little let-up in this aural assault until the music collapses, quite literally, under its own weight. André de Ridder and the BBC Symphony Orchestra kept a firm grip on proceedings while bringing out the rawness of the score.

Konzert in einem Satz is one of only two named concertos in Rihm’s vast canon. It’s a work of the utmost difficulty for the cellist. Not only does the soloist have to play almost continuously for the duration of twenty or so minutes of this (nominally) one-movement work, but the technical demands are replete with two-part counterpoint and four-part chords. To his credit Steven Isserlis (for whom the work was composed) seemed to have few difficulties with these demands, although rarely will he have worked harder. The concerto itself seems to draw its influences from a number of sources; there are nods to romanticism as well as modernist soundings, but the overall feel is that of the Second Viennese School, of Schoenberg in its one-movement construction and even more so of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto. Comparisons can certainly be drawn from the Berg: long passages of furious anger subsiding into sadness and a sense of loss. The closing adagio of muted strings and delicate cello gestures hints at acceptance and a sense of finality. This was very moving in a performance of real humanity from Isserlis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

André de Ridder. Photograph: Marco Borggreve“Das Gehege” received its first performance in 2006 in a double-bill with Richard Strauss’s “Salome”, in a production staged by Hollywood director William Friedkin. “Das Gehege” (The Enclosure) is based on a drama by the German playwright Botho Strauss. It’s a semi-mythical tale about an encounter between a woman and an eagle and her desire to possess it or be possessed. In the end her desire for possession kills what she desires, hence the coupling with “Salome”. Much has been speculated as to the political implications of the piece; the figure of the eagle having particular resonances in Germany. Here, in concert form, without the figure of the eagle that was portrayed by a dancer in a cage in the original production, the eroticism is played up, the political symbolism not so apparent.

The obvious parallel here is Schoenberg’s “Erwartung”, another short monodrama of a woman driven to the point of hysteria by desire. Luckily Rayanne Dupuis, who had recently performed the role of The Woman in Basle was able to step-in at short notice after Gabrielle Schnaut fell ill. Dressed in red velvet, Dupuis delivered a performance charged with erotic desire and sexual frustration, self-loathing and bewilderment. Orange-light flooded the stage as she moved closer to the bird, red as the creature met its death. There was playing of real refinement from the BBC Symphony Orchestra with André de Ridder drawing out some gorgeous colours from Rihm’s expressionist score.

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