Posing Questions: Wolfgang Rihm at 60

Southbank Centre2012 sees the 60th birthday of the prolific composer Wolfgang Rihm and the London Sinfonietta curated a concert that included three UK premieres of Rihm works in addition to two works by composers who at some point in their training were taught by Rihm: Rebecca Saunders and Jörg Widmann.

Wolfgang Rihm - Photograph by A.T Schaefer

Ricercare – music in memorium Luigi Nono (1990) was the first of Rihm’s works to open the concert and displayed the typical features of much of his output. Timbre is the most significant concern in this piece: long sustained notes are coloured by attacks on other instruments, and there is a great deal of silence. The precision of the ensemble in achieving the range of dynamics and attacks did much to bring this music to life and make its argument cogent for the listener. Rebecca Saunders’ Quartet (1997-98) followed and despite a brief programme note the work was made a greater case for something that was structured with great detail and for the most part was performed with precision. The scoring of bass clarinet, accordion, piano and double bass permitted a variety of textures that were reminiscent of her teacher’s work—particularly in the use of silence—yet this was something defiantly different, and there was a greater degree of development across the span of the work than heard in the previous piece in the concert.

Rebecca Saunders - Source musikfabrik-blog.eu

Jörg Widmann’s Dubairische Tänze (2009) ended the first half and was the second UK premiere of the evening.  The piece is a set of eight dances which were written as a response to the composer’s month-long stay in Dubai. The vibrancy of this work in its breadth of textures, parody and perhaps circus-like quality to much of the material made this an immediately attractive and engaging performance. The players gave an exciting rendition, and did a great deal to made sense of Widmann’s rhetoric—particularly the extremes in contrast, in terms of mood and tempo. The percussions received laughter at using amplified bowls of water at the centre of the work but otherwise this was a colourful work performed with aplomb.

Jörg Widmann - Photograph by Marco Borggreve

Two more UK premieres ended the concert and it was Nach-Schrift (2004) for solo piano and orchestra that made a striking start to the second half. Hallmarks of Rihm’s rhetoric were there yet there was greater depth to this musical journey than the opening work and the performers presented this with an appropriate intensity and insight. Andrew Zolinsky produced colourful and well balanced piano playing and came across well even when he was at the back of the ensemble. Will Sound More Again (2011) ended the concert – the largest ensemble to be used in the whole concert. The prominent use of saxophone near the start gave this an intriguing sound and for a work at nearly 19 minutes in length it progressed at a rapid pace and was conducted with energy and focused gestures by Thierry Fisher. The accordion was particularly prominent later in the piece and was often the only sound remaining after the short and loud attack of other instruments. The variety of textures made this a work of real colour and one that justifies Rihm’s significance position in the European new music scene of the past forty years.

Concerts such as this by the London Sinfonietta not only offer UK premieres of works by composers that rightly deserve performances in London but also give an insight into the work of composers who are making a mark on music today. Though only three works of Rihm’s were featured in this one-off event to celebrate his 60th birthday, they were excellent choices and offset against the work of his pupils made this an informative concert for contemporary music experts and less experienced listeners alike.

Steven Berryman is a composer and teacher working and living in London. Follow him on Twitter: @Steven_Berryman