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Wolfgang Rihm's Choral Music

available at Amazon
W. Rihm, Astralis, Other Choral Works, RIAS Kammerchor,
H.-C. Rademann

(released on March 13, 2012)
HMC 902129 | 68'07"

Listen to excerpts on Google Play
This review was originally published by The Classical Review (May 9, 2012)

Wolfgang Rihm, who runs the Institute of Modern Music at the Conservatory of Music in Karlsruhe, the city where he was born in 1952, is a prolific composer whose music, in many genres, is finding its way to performance more and more. His compositions for string quartet were the focus of the 5e Biennale de quatuors à cordes in Paris this winter, and he has had stints as composer-in-residence at the Lucerne Festival and at the Salzburg Festival, where his opera Dionysos had a well-regarded premiere in 2010. Rihm celebrates his 60th birthday this year, and Hans-Christoph Rademann and the talented singers of the RIAS Kammerchor have released this disc in his honor, with a selection of his choral music, ranging from the 1960s to the last decade.

Rihm, who was raised as a Catholic, came by his love of choral music honestly, having sung for some years in the Karlsruhe Oratorio Choir, a point made in the fine booklet essay by scholar Toni Hildebrandt. Although his approach to choral music is on one hand backward-looking -- traditional Latin texts, references to Renaissance composers, willingness to use tonal triads -- Rihm's harmonic style incorporates too much dissonant vocabulary to be grouped with the saccharine music of the holy minimalists like Arvo Pärt or John Tavener, although there are pieces in this selection that might fit that description, like the motets Tristis est anima mea and Ecce vidimus eum. The RIAS Kammerchor gives virtuosic performances of all this often complicated music, led by conductor Hans-Christoph Rademann, with the sheer volume produced sometimes near overwhelming, as in the almost shrieked conclusion of Recessit pater noster, a heroic and sharply dissonant evocation of the Harrowing of Hell that is one of the Sieben Passions-Texte for six voices, the most recent works recorded here. The group's intonation is finely honed, making many of the more Messiaen-like colorful-dissonant chords, in Velum templi scissum est, for example, shimmer with chromatic complexity. (Rihm also studied music theory, let us not forget.)

In Astralis, the third work in a series Rihm calls "Über die Linie" (Over the line), a small choir is instructed to sing as slowly and as quietly as possible. The poetic lines drawn from Heinrich von Ofterdingen, a novel fragment by Novalis, the pseudonym of 18th-century writer Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, puts one in mind of the subject matter of Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps. The end of days -- "Space and time no longer order the world: Here the future is in the past" -- as it might be described in Christian terms is for Novalis the dawn of "the reign of love," a Romantic vision of the end of time. It opens with some high, fragile notes in the cello (the instrument essentially functions like an extra voice, diving in and out of the choral texture at phrase ends), and there are some almost imperceptible sounds added by timpani: both instrumental parts are performed by members of musikFabrik, the contemporary music ensemble based in Cologne. The sense of temporal stasis created by this music, with its hanging phrases and clouds of choral sound (with one ear-shattering crescendo in the 21st of its 29 minutes -- caveat auditor, especially one listening on headphones), is meant to vault the listener into a sort of cosmic transcendence, and indeed it can make for interesting dreams if you listen to it with your eyes closed.

The only complaint one might raise about this selection of Rihm's music is a certain sameness of style, with a lot of mostly slow-paced homophony adding up to an overall dull experience. The conclusion of the disc with the much rougher Fragmenta Passionis (from 1968, when Rihm was just 16) is an admirable gesture to break the possible monotony. Rihm, in those days of heady experimentation, plays with more contrapuntal structure and decidedly non-traditional devices, like the quasi-shouted chords of the first fragment and the Sprechstimme-style yells, groans, cackles, and waves of moaned glissandi in the second fragment, based on the text "They all shouted, 'Crucify him'!," but he comes back, on the final words ("Gottes Sohn!") of the fifth fragment, to a full-blown A major triad. If you have enjoyed Karlheinz Stockhausen's Stimmung or Luciano Berio's Sinfonia, also composed in that groovy Age of Aquarius, you will like this work's five compact movements.

Tom Service, Wolfgang Rihm: the musical omnivore (The Guardian, March 4, 2010)

Wolfgang Rihm on Ionarts

Charles T. Downey, Stimmung (October 3, 2007)

Andrew Clements, Rihm: Uber die Linie II (The Guardian, April 19, 2012)

Andrew Clark, Jakob Lenz, Hampstead Theatre, London (Financial Times, April 18, 2012)

Marcia Adair, Wolfgang Rihm and Deus passus (The Omniscient Mussel, [n.d.])

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