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NSO Takes Up Rihm

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W. Rihm, Dithyrambe (inter alia), Arditti Quartet, Lucerne Symphony Orchestra
(Kairos, 2009)
All of the coverage of Wolfgang Rihm's music in live performances here at Ionarts has come from our European correspondent. The German composer, born in Karlsruhe in 1952, is celebrated in Europe and much less known here in the U.S. In conservative Washington, the adjective of choice would likely tip over to unknown. So Christoph Eschenbach's co-commissioning of a new piano concerto from Rihm is significant, and this week's American premiere of the work, with the National Symphony Orchestra last night, reunited him with pianist Tzimon Barto, with whom he performed the world premiere at the Salzburg Festival last August.

The piece is a strange concerto by almost any measure of the genre, in two long movements with little overtly showy technical display from the keyboard -- what Rihm has called "virtuoso fodder," as quoted in Thomas May's informative program notes -- indeed few moments, until the end of the work, where the piano is not presented really as part of the orchestra. Although there is a lot of dialogue back and forth between orchestra and soloist in the score, there was never a sense that the piano was leading the piece. That being said, it was a relief to hear not just another concerto but something that had an unmistakable and often alluring individuality right from its soft, smoky opening.

The first movement often felt like a cross between cocktail piano and an austere, Webernesque pointillism, murky clouds of mostly strings for much of the movement that hovered around the piano's murmuring commentary, a tribute to Barto's "exquisite pianissimo," as Rihm put it. The writing is quite lush, with misty harp and little percussion or brass until a climax near the end. The second movement begins with the piano largely up in the treble half of its range, matched by more of the battery that Rihm pulls out of his back pocket. The movement is labeled a rondo, and without having studied the score in detail, a sense of a section of music returning was evident, although in a varied form each time, with a sort of cadenza before the final one, a nod to traditional form. In the end, though, it is the first movement's delicacy that wins out.

Other Articles:

Robert Battey, Rihm’s Thorny Concerto Leaves Listener In Lurch (Classical Voice North America, January 20)

Anne Midgette, Barto, Eschenbach make case for Rihm’s appealing concerto (Washington Post, January 16)

---, A modernist master’s Mozartean face: Rihm’s new piano concerto at the NSO (Washington Post, January 10)

Tom Service, Wolfgang Rihm wins the Grawemeyer (The Guardian, December 2)
The rest of the program was of much less interest, both pieces -- Dvořák's Carnival Overture and Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique -- having been performed by the NSO within the last five years. Eschenbach appeared to use the Dvořák as a test piece for his string section, with one of the candidates for the vacant associate concertmaster chair sitting as concertmaster -- Justine Lamb-Budge, concertmaster of the Canton Symphony Orchestra -- and the slapdash tempo of the opening sounded, well, a little slapdash. The candidate had a crack at several solos throughout the evening, all played beautifully, if without much bravura or flash.

Eschenbach's choice of nervous, racing tempi affected the Berlioz as well, giving an appropriately distracted quality to the first movement but also undercutting some of the effects, particularly in the fourth and fifth movements (like the col legno strikes in the Witches' Sabbath). In spite of a lovely duet between English horn and oboe in the Scène aux champs, the slow movement, given an overly indulgent rubato, was a little soporific. One particularly unpleasing detail was the sound of the tubular bells in the finale, which buzzed as if they were making something else resonate, but at a dissonant frequency. Hopefully, the NSO staff can figure out what was going on there and correct it for the subsequent performances.

This program repeats on Saturday evening only.

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