The London Sinfonietta Celebrates Wolfgang Rihm at Sixty

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Rihm, Saunders, Widmann: London Sinfonietta, Andrew Zolinsky (piano), Thierry Fischer (conductor), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 24.1.2012 (GDn)


Rihm: Ricercare – music in memoriam Luigi Nono
Rebecca Saunders
: Quartet
Jorg Widmann
: Dubairische Tanze
: Nach-Schrift
: Will Sound More Again

Wolfgang Rihm has packed a lot into his first 60 years. Both the quantity and the consistent quality of his music mark him out as one of today’s greatest living composers. He certainly deserves the international tributes that will be marking his birthday year. He’s not much of a traveller though, and it is rare for him to leave his native Karlsruhe, which may explain why he didn’t join us this evening.

The concert was a bit of a mixed bag. The sheer scale of Rihm’s output makes it difficult to frame any single concert as a survey. But the London Sinfonietta has done a good job over the years to introduce British audiences to his latest works. This evening’s programme was in the same spirit, with four UK premières from the man himself and two pieces from his most distinguished pupils, Rebecca Saunders and Jorg Widmann.

The Ricercare with which the concert opened is one of four pieces Rihm wrote in the wake of the death of Luigi Nono. At first appearances, the two composers would seem to share very little, but Rihm obviously thinks otherwise. This piece, for a bass-heavy ensemble including bass clarinet, contrabassoon and contrabass trombone, inhabits an aesthetic somewhere between those of the two composers. It takes the abrupt, impulsive gestures that Nono used to punctuate his serial textures, but tones them done to the more civilised level at which Rihm works. It progresses by fits and starts, often with silences between the gestures, more a Nono trait than one we might associate with Rihm. It’s not his greatest work by any means, but it was certainly interesting to hear the composer in a more reflective mood than pervades his more famous scores.

Rebecca Saunders deserves far more exposure in her native country than she has so far received. She may have brought this relative neglect on herself though by adopting a thoroughly German aesthetic, one which fits very comfortably into a portrait concert for her former teacher. The title Quartet doesn’t tell us much, apart perhaps to imply that relationships between four instruments are to be explored. She picks the unlikely combination of piano, double bass, accordion and bass clarinet. So, as in the first piece, the textures are decidedly bass-heavy. But Saunders has a trick up her sleeve – she understands the range of extended techniques that are available on the accordion (in this case a bayan-type button instrument), and she is able continuously to vary the textures through her imaginative writing for it. The combination of bass clarinet and accordion turns out to be productive, as does the combination of plucked bass and plucked piano strings. As the piece progresses, the piano becomes more civilised, settling into a repeated chord sequence, while the bass becomes more wayward, the player repeatedly detuning the strings to move closer and closer to unpitched noise. The piece went on five minutes longer than its material justified, but that’s hardly unusual in new music.

A considerably less satisfying offering was made by Jorg Widmann, whose Dubairische Tanze was designed as a send up of the oom-pah music of his native Bavaria. So there were plenty of woodwind and brass melodies with over-the-top percussion, all made dissonant to ensure the audience was aware of the composer’s self-parody. It was awful, just awful. Embarrassingly unfunny and, unlike Saunders’ score, which only overstayed its welcome by five minutes, this one seemed to go on for ever. Is the London Sinfonietta trying to sabotage Widmann’s stratospheric international career? Or maybe they just want to demonstrate that all those stereotypes about the Germans and their sense of humour are actually true.

Looking round the hall at the interval, the audience was pretty meagre, especially considering the stature of the composer being celebrated. One problem may have been overkill – the BBC put on a very good Rihm day a year or two ago at the Barbican, which may have satisfied the curiosity of most. And speaking of the Barbican, I hear that the Kronos Quartet were playing Black Angels there tonight, presumably swallowing up a considerable proportion of the new music audience. After 20 minutes of that Widmann score, I wished I’d gone to the Barbican myself.

Fortunately, the concert turned a corner in the second half. The last two works on the programme were both classic Rihm: pieces for chamber orchestra-sized ensemble, each a part of one of his on-going cycles, and each fabulously constructed. This is what the composer does best, compositions for medium sized ensemble, structured as a single movement, but otherwise inscrutable in terms of their internal form. Nach-Schrift was the best work on the programme by a wide margin. The piece is for ensemble and a pianist, who is described as a soloist although he really provides more of an obbligato over the top of the orchestral textures. And what fascinating textures they are! Ideas and harmonies constantly appear, some clearly new, some adapted from earlier music. But the sheer sense of life in this music, and its continuous invention, set it apart from the work of most composers writing today.

The performances this evening were all good, and the players managed to convey that sense of life and energy which is the composer’s currency. Andrew Zolinsky was a proficient soloist/obbligatist in Nach-Schrift. Conductor Thierry Fischer is little known in the capital for his work with new music, but his clear, incisive baton technique is exactly what these scores need. There were a few small ensemble problems here and there, the two percussionists set at opposite sides of the stage in the first piece didn’t always quite synch with the ensemble for instance, but in general the many technical challenges of these scores were well handled.

The last piece, Will Sound More Again, came as a surprise, as it showed us Rihm’s rarely encountered lighter side. This too is a piece for small orchestra, which runs at a fairly continuous tempo for about 20 minutes. But there are all sorts of flourishes and light touches, from the bizarre saxophone duet at the beginning to the parody of the accordion by the percussion near the end. All of which goes to show, despite evidence to the contrary earlier on, that perhaps the Germans do have a sense of humour after all.


Gavin Dixon