Regarded as one of the most important contemporary composers in Germany since the late 1970’s, Wolfgang Rihm initially associated with a movement called the “New Simplicity”, which evolved in opposition to the rigid serialist aesthetic that dominated at the time. He is almost preposterously prolific, with nearly 400 works to his name: seven of them are being presented by Sound Icon in two sequential concerts “Celebrating Wolfgang Rihm.”
The first concert, a collection of five works for small chamber forces, played Wednesday night at the Goethe-Institut Boston. A solo piano work from 1985, Brahmsliebewalzer had the most accessible surface. Its ruminated in late-Romantic language that sounded much like Brahms, but its sense of suspension called to mind Schumann. Near the end I was reminded of the most adventurous harmonies used by William Bolcom in his piano rags, but without the rhythmic structure of a rag—or of a waltz, even, as the predominant rhythm was a steady, square tread. Yoko Hagino executed with restraint, even reticence. None of the other works shared the same harmonic language, but they all had a similarly elusive quality; as the evening progressed I found it challenging to retain an overall impression. Despite his earlier associations, Rihm does not write simple music. The subsequent works were all in an atonal (but not serialist) idiom whose surface is distinctly modernist. Antlitz (meaning “countenance” or “face”) for violin and piano, spoke in dissonant fragments, often very quietly. Hagino was joined by the indefatigable Gabriela Diaz, who gave a mini-clinic on muted tone color for much of the piece. The sparseness at the beginning eventually congests significantly in the piano, and a tentative sense of opening up ensues before the work concludes. While a palpable dialog obtained between the two parts, I struggled in vain to discover its organizing evolution in time.
Something similar happened in the two works written for a low-voiced string trio, in the hands of Mark Berger (viola), Stephen Marotto (cello) and David Goodchild (bass). Verzeichnung –Studie (Distortion – Study, 1986), the more traditional piece, featured tight rhythmic ensemble, dueling harmonics, echoing pitches, and generous and creative writing for the bass that Goodchild executed with rich resonance. Nuce (1994), by contrast, offered hisses and thumps, extra-musical noises juxtaposed with deep chords, by turns rebarbative and excitable.
In the most ambitious work, 12. Streichquartett (2001), violinist Lilit Hartunian joined Diaz, Berger and Marrotto. Cast in one large movement broken by occasional silences, it used yet another sonic vocabulary, including a storm of pizzicato at the opening, plucked glissandi, and a wide selection of motives that in their rhythmic and tonal violence recalled Bartok and Ligeti. Listening to the three ensemble pieces, one can hear Rihm acquire a surer and tighter sense of craft; in the quartet, any given episode of a minute or so repays close attention, as the musical material gets battered about and passed around by an adept intelligence. It changes rapidly, fast to slow, loud to soft, dry to rich. The material often thrills, and the contrasts catch the attention, but I find entirety difficult to recall. Sound Icon’s Artistic Director Jeffrey Means afterwards suggested to me that unlike, say, Helmut Lachenmann (whose prickly sound-constructions resembled moments in In Nuce), Rihm is not linear or traditionally dramatic, operating more by surprise and by personal intuition, and that this might account for my difficulties characterizing the work. Means’s insight seems to reveal something I had not registered in the playing, and perhaps I was seeking to discover processes and ends that simply did not interest the composer. During the second half we were treated to Means’s brief interview with Rihm from earlier this year, in which he revealed both a keen mind and a puckish sense of humor, producing sudden laughter with a look or a dramatic pause.
As is usually the case with Sound Icon execution was at a high level. The three gentlemen on the lower strings played with a relaxed assurance, conveying calm even in the stormier parts of In Nuce. The exuberant, even contentious quartet, always kept the musical conversation audible even when everyone was talking at once. On Friday, a much larger group takes on two large works, Frage and Pol – Kolchis – Nucleus at the Fenway Center at Northeastern. Highly recommended to fans of the modern, who have a love for detail and a tolerance for the digressive and open-ended.