Among the current crop of composers, Wolfgang Rihm stands out from his colleagues for the ways in which he can harness his prodigious understanding of theory to an ingenious repertoire of practices. His theoretical knowledge encompasses not only the grammatical constraints involving counterpoint and harmony and the many different logical approaches to structure at both small and large durational scales but also what seems to be a thoroughly open-minded approach to the full scope of music history, at least in the Western world. Thus, as a teacher, he can be equally at home discussing the work of John Cage with his students as he is at examining Claudio Monteverdi.
However, the composer to have made the deepest impression on him appears to be Johannes Brahms. The impression has been shaped by not only the broad repertoire of Brahms’ compositions but also the insights into Brahms’ work documented by Arnold Schoenberg in his 1933 radio talk “Brahms, der Fortschrittliche” (Brahms the progressive). Rihm’s relationship to Brahms, in turn, inspired Numa Bischof Ullmann, Director of the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester, to commission a cycle of four compositions, each of which would serve as an introductory commentary for one of Brahms’ four symphonies.
Each of these introductions received its premiere over the course of a year, between June of 2011 and June of 2012, in conjunction with performances of the associated Brahms symphonies by the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester under Principal Conductor James Gaffigan. The collection of the four introductions was then performed as a symphony in its own right, to which Rihm assigned the title “Nähe fern” (near far), during the Lucerne Festival on August 20, 2012. That tile, in turn, comes from the first two lines of a late poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:
Dämmrung senkte sich von oben
Schon ist alle Nähe fern;
Dusk has fallen from above,
Already all nearness is distant;
(translation by Charles Johnston)
The world premiere of “Nähe fern” in “symphony form” was accompanied by a performance of Rihm’s orchestration of his setting of this poem, previously composed for voice and piano (as Brahms had set the poem as the first in his Opus 59 collection of songs).
Next week harmonia mundi will release a recording of both “Nähe fern” and the orchestrated Goethe setting made prior to the Lucerne Festival performance in June of 2012. (This item is currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com.) The song is performed by baritone Hans Christoph Begemann, and the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester is conducted by Gaffigan.
It should be observed out of fairness that familiarity with both the Brahms symphonies and Brahms’ Opus 59 song setting (composed before the first of the four symphonies) is likely to be helpful to the seriously curious listener. As Mark Sattler puts it in the booklet notes (again translated by Johnson), “in each movement, one hears the harmonies, motifs, and characters of the associated Brahms symphonic template as it were subtly shimmering through from behind a curtain, sometimes more, sometimes less clearly recognisable.” That recognition will probably be easier for those who have heard these symphonies many times, whether or not listening has involved any score-following.
Within the scope of my own listening experience, I would say that the effect that Sattler describes is not that different from many of the ways in which Charles Ives would weave personal memories of many of his own listening experiences into his compositions, particularly the orchestral works in which those memory traces emerge as threads of thickly-textured counterpoint. Each of Rihm’s four movements triggers the memory in a manner not that different from the effect of listening to Ives. Whether or not Rihm is familiar with Ives (or with all those sources of American music so firmly planted in Ives’ memory) is beside the point. I make this observation only as a point of departure for those who choose to listen to this new recording.
Those who make that commitment will be richly rewarded. The combined efforts of both audio capture and editing that went into making this recording have led to a first-rate account of Rihm’s textures in all of their rich qualities. The mind of the attentive listener is free to navigate through those textures, choosing to follow different threads on different listening occasions. This is thus far more than simply an attempt to provide a faithful document of a major event at the 2012 Lucerne Festival. It is a recording of qualities likely to endure with as much strength as will concert performances of the music that has been documented.