At the end of this month Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm (MDG) will release a new CD of the music of Wolfgang Rihm as part of their Scene series. (This CD is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.com.) The title of the disc, Music for Violin and Piano, while not inaccurate, is slightly deceptive. The major work on the recording, lasting almost half an hour, is a piano solo, “Nachstudie” (post-study), performed by Steffen Schleiermacher. This is both preceded and followed by shorter duo performances with violinist Andreas Seidel. The first of these is “Antlitz – Zeichnung für Violine und Klavier” (visage – sketch for violin and piano); and the final piece is “Phantom und Eskapade” (translated pretty much as it sounds). All three of these works were composed between 1992 and 1994.
These three compositions are representative of Rihm’s interest in reworking pieces after they have been ostensibly completed. As Schleiermacher puts it in his notes for the recording, Rihm views composing as “work in progress” (this phrase appears in English even in Schleiermacher’s original German text), meaning that his present is richly laden with reflections on the past (and, in the case of “Phantom und Eskapade,” not necessarily only his own past). This puts the listener of this CD who is unfamiliar with Rihm’s work at a bit of a disadvantage. Nevertheless, we all have to start somewhere; and, in the long view of music history, there really is no such thing as “beginning.” So every listening experience starts in the middle of somewhere.
Those looking for some place to drop a metaphorical anchor, so to speak, would probably do well to start with the piano solo. For one thing it is a perfect example of Rihm’s work-in-progress thinking, as may be seen in this excerpt from his Wikipedia page:
He does not always regard a finished work the last word on a subject—for example the orchestral work Ins Offene… (1990) was completely rewritten in 1992, and then used as the basis for his piano concerto Sphere (1994), before the piano part of Sphere was recast for the solo piano work Nachstudie (also 1994). (In 2002 Rihm also produced a new version of Nachstudie, Sphäre nach Studie, for harp, two double basses, piano and percussion, and also a new version of Sphere, called Sphäre um Sphäre, for two pianos and chamber ensemble.)
It is also worth noting that the Wikipedia author cites Morton Feldman as one of Rihm’s influences. Schleiermacher has put a lot of his time into recording music from all periods of Feldman’s life, as well as a fair amount of the work of Feldman’s New York School colleagues, John Cage, Earle Brown, and Christian Wolff. He has made these recordings with both MDG and Hat Hut Records, and anyone familiar with these composers should quickly home into both the sources of influence and Rihm’s individual voice on the matter.
What I find most interesting is that Rihm seems to have found his own way towards matters of structural architecture. Cage was often more interested in how time itself should be structured over the course of a composition than he was in what actually happened over the structural intervals. This is why so many of those intervals end up being silent. Cage once told some students that he composed 4’33” because the periods of silence in his piano compositions kept getting longer and longer, so he felt it was time for silence to take over an entire piece. Rihm shares Cage’s interest in periods of inactivity, but he does not invoke inactivity in the interest of silence. Rather, it is a period of resonance, following some very loud and percussive passage. In other words he is calling attention to a rich repertoire of sonorities that arise during the “decay curve” of a dynamic envelope.
Much of this rhetoric also arises in “Antlitz,” except this composition gives the impression of music-yet-to-be, an auditory analog of the sorts of sketches made by visual artists. If “Antlitz” is an attempt to be prospective, then “Phantom und Eskapade” involves retrospection that reaches back further than the New York School. He describes the composition as a “Stückphantasien,” as if he wishes to distinguish the genre from Robert Schumann’s “Fantasiestücke” label. Schumann is describing a collection of pieces, each of which has its own “fantastic” vision. Rihm’s work, on the other hand, is a single integrated piece “haunted” by a collection of phantoms and other flights of fancy. Some of those phantoms are more evident than others. One detects fragmented allusions to Claude Debussy’s sonatas for violin and cello, and there even seems to be an apparition of Jascha Heifetz playing George Gershwin. However, these are only some of the more obvious peaks along a much broader mountain range of fantasies, making “Phantom und Eskapade” the sort of composition that will always have something new to reveal with each subsequent listening experience.
Thus, while listening to these Rihm selections may at first seem like a daunting prospect, it is best addressed as an opportunity for adventure that will be well rewarded.