Wolfgang Rihm’s Music Showcased in Vienna

AustriaAustria  Rihm: Marino Formenti (introduction/piano), Jörg Widmann (clarinet), Minguet Quartet (Ulrich Isfort, Annette Reisinger (violins), Aroa Sorin (viola), Matthias Diener (cello)). Mozart-Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, 4.12.2012 (MB)

Vier Male, pieces for solo clarinet (2000)
String Quartet no.4 (1980-81)
Four Studies for clarinet quintet (2002)

This concert of music by Wolfgang Rihm was part of the Vienna Konzerthaus’s ‘Nouvelles Aventures’ series, organised and introduced by pianist Marino Formenti. I could not help but wonder whether Formenti’s format would have been better suited to a concert in which he was actually performing. As it was, we heard him play a Rihm miniature – typically Schoenbergian harmony if, equally typically, somewhat lacking Schoenberg’s bite and strength of purpose – and sketch a little general musico-historical background, which did not necessarily seem to be closely connected with what we proceeded to hear. Nevertheless it remains an enterprising series and deserves to do well.

Jörg Widmann’s increasing renown as a composer – indeed, a pupil of Rihm – should not obscure his status as an excellent clarinettist. The opening work for solo clarinet offered ample evidence, should it have been required. Not only did Rihm’s demands hold no difficulties for Widmann; he shaped the Vier Male as if they were repertoire pieces. (They probably are for him.) Well contrasted in traditional fashion – this might almost be a sonata, or at least a set of Second Viennese School-style pieces – the second piece, ‘sehr langsam, wie aus weiter Ferne,’ came across as the most emotionally satisfying: a slow movement that accomplished something not entirely different from what Bruckner might have recognised. The first movement offered considerable use of the further ends of the clarinet’s range, without ever sounding extreme for the sake of it. Doubtless that was a matter of both composition and performance, extended techniques used sparingly. This is no Berio Sequenza.

The slow movement – here in final place – also apparently offered the key to Rihm’s Fourth String Quartet, granted fine advocacy by the Minguet Quartet. Solo violin lines and distant echoes fashioned a journey into nothingness; again the weight and tradition of German Romanticism and post-Romanticism were perceptible and, for the most part, productive. For the rest, I felt as I often do with Rihm. The music was well-crafted enough, closely argued though occasionally digressive; yet I could not, hand on heart, say that I found a distinctive voice, nor that I did not feel that it might just as readily – perhaps preferably – been a work of half or at any rate two-thirds the length. There was nothing to frighten the horses in terms of harmony, extended techniques, or anything else. Might we have experienced more of an adventure if there had been?

Much the same could be said of the Four Studies, in which Widmann joined the Quartet. Again, it would not take a huge leap of imagination to consider this a sonata-style work. One of the problems, or at least features, of a clarinet quintet is the tendency of the clarinet to assume a solo role set against the strings. Rihm and the performers skilfully made a point of that. Earlier on, we might have been hearing a small-scale concertante work, a successor to the 1999 Music for Clarinet and Orchestra. Yet the journey was towards fully incorporating the solo instrument into the ensemble, sometimes allying with individual string players, other parts set against them. Whether I should have felt differently in a context that was more mixed – this concert, introduction included, exceeded two hours without an interval – I cannot say, but again I felt the work to be longer than necessary in terms of its material. A little Webern always goes a long way; here it would have been manna from heaven. And he certainly knew how to write for the clarinet.


Mark Berry