Kontinent Rihm 1
Markus Hinterhäuser, in charge of the concert programs at the Salzburg Festival, is really leaving a mark with Kontinente series, each year devoting a good number of concerts to one contemporary composer. Ten, this year, and that’s not counting the opera Dionysus (more about that tomorrow) by Wolfgang Rihm, who is the 2010 featured composer.
What makes the Kontinent Rihm series so interesting is that they don’t just program Rihm (with all due respect: thank goodness), but mix it with interesting (sometimes conciliatory, conservative, sometimes delightfully rare) other works. When was the last time you’ve heard Darius Milhaud’s Les Choéphores—music for seven stage-scenes of Aeschylus’ Choephori (Oresteia)? I, never. Milhaud is composer who leaves me hot and cold—or after too much Le bœuf and La Création, lukewarm. But Les Choéphores is hot and cold and everything, just not lukewarm.
The intoxicating choral tableau begins innocently enough with a mix of French operatic tradition (anywhere from Gounod to Dukas) and Milhaud’s (then) distinctly modern early 20th century idiom and his inventive hand at scoring. And just when you expect another dose of twisted perfume hurled your way, he takes the orchestra out entirely, entrusts parts IV and V solely to percussion, and lets the chorus growl, speak, huff, hiss, puff, whistle, vocalize like 67 well tuned Caspars, while a speaker (mezzo Dörte Lyssewski, in this case) rhythmically chants the text. And that in 1915, a good seven years before Walton’s Façade. Let’s, by almost avoiding the mildly daft suggestion of this pre-shadowing rap music, get right to the performance at this point, because the Percussive Planet Ensemble, the Salzburg Bach Chorus, and especially Lyssewski made those two central passages a riveting affair, driven, absolutely irresistible. The tame, matter-of-factly reading of these parts on the Markevitch recording can’t, sadly, begin to get across the compelling force the live performance whipped up. Ingo Metzmacher and the DSO Berlin, a wonderful incisive soprano in Lucy Crowe and the French-throaty baritone Jean-Luc Ballestra (a potential double for Johnny Depp) all did their part to ensure success.
Then, after the first intermission, came Rihm—incredulously only 58 years old and already a Grande Dame (definitely not yet éminence grise) of German notational music: Tutuguri—Poème dansé, from 1980/82, inspired by the writing of Antonine Artaud… a ballet (dancing optional) in four (unrelated) scenes for large orchestra, six drummers, taped chorus and speaker (or, alternatively a loud parrot, I think). A single flute plays one note, then another, establishes a rhythmical pattern which is then, hesitantly, picked up by other winds, then brass instruments, until finally the piano and percussion relieve the monotony by introducing stop-and-go cacophony. Now having established that style, it continues more or less like that, for two more parts, taking a good 80 minutes until the end of the third scene where an actor/speaker (Martin Wuttke, here) gets to act out that above-mentioned parrot. Overacting can be a pain, though; I reckon the spontaneous laughter at his fervent, achingly sincere antics was not anticipated by Rihm. It was all a bit much of the same or, to put it nicely, not a terribly efficient way of getting the musical content across. I’d like to think that much of the same-ish Rihm experiences can effectively be gotten condensed, dramatized, in short: much improved, by seeing Das Gehege (review).
The orchestra, no longer needed for the fourth and final part, parted, along with half the audience, and after the second intermission the Martin Grubinger (review) percussion group took the stage. What followed was tedium with sticks; Koto drumming for white conservatory boys. Mindless, endless, continuously more simplistic drumming that doesn’t gain at all from accumulation (more likely: doesn’t even try to get any accumulative force going), and peters out in unsatisfactory horizontal boredom, stretched over interminable forty minutes. Occasionally matters are livened up by more dying parrots screaking from tape. Where’s Animal from the Muppets when you need him? If the drums had been covered with steed hide, at least I could have punned about beating a dead horse. But the six drummers just relentlessly beat congas with sticks and the work descended to the level of a drumming group therapy. It should be easy for the following nine Kontinent Rihm concerts to surpass this experience. Considerably.