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Piano Pieces

Artist: Wolfgang Rihm
Wolfgang Rihm - Piano Pieces CD
Label: Neos
Regular Price: $34.95
On Sale For: $17.48 
Year: 2007
Format: CD


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My first contact with the piano music of Wolfgang Rihm came about quite late on. About eight years ago I listened to his Klavierstück 5 “Tombeau” during a concert.

I was transported immediately by the dark and vehement nature of this music. Like an outcry, a nigrescent tantrum if you will, one followed by three exclamation marks … The work is conceived in a strongly architechtonic way. Two outer parts act as dual points of repose, each in its own way framing and clinging on to a middle section that storms the heavens. My reaction was perhaps a subliminal one.

The effect of the music was immediate however: from the first moment of contrast provided by the held c that gradually dies away, to the subsequent eruptions. The final c octaves are especially effective, and represent defiant perseverance whilst the breath is held after minutes of headlong and frenetic obsession that brings the pianist to the point of exhaustion.

Without attempting to catalogue the Rihm œuvre, I would like to illuminate just a few issues which fascinate me about the composer. The first aspect is an obvious one really: the incredible kinetic energy that the music discharges. It emerges into a gesture, and arises out of one. A more extreme example than Klavierstück 5 is perhaps Klavierstück 7, a stage for loaded gestural testiness. A single pregnant figure is subjected to a maelstrom of its own magnetic energy.

The accents are displaced, and the pulse dissolved, until a chain of trills verging on insanity is to sing a shore into sight. It becomes visible, only to disappear. Shortly before the close the music enters the triumph region of E flat major. The victory was hard won. The key is like a primeval scream against the suffering waves of madness. And finally a world of shadows, “come una aria”, sparse the text and torpid its ecstasy, the music at last taking on its earlier shape and form before plunging into the depths of hell.

This world of shadows and stillness is a kind of parallel reality, and rather less obvious, although it indubitably represents in gestural terms the very opposite of musical energy that acts in the offensive and which lends the music itself a sense of space. In Klavierstück 7 the music has already begun to work on two separate dynamic levels, ones which are governed by the short sixteenth notes in triple sforzato and the following dotted eighth notes in triple piano. In the Nachstudie indirect sonic effects are exploited more overtly – most audibly by means of the echoes achieved by silently deploying the middle pedal to hold notes, but also by the rhetorical rests and a slackening of the poetic voice. Those passages in which nothing actually happens become decisive proponents of expression.

It is the poetry of Klavierstück 4 that fascinates me in the most romantic sense. Although the work is formally much akin to the structuralism of the earlier piano pieces, it is melodic motion that is celebrated here, with Chopin coming to mind from time to time. For me, this piece was one of the greatest discoveries of the last few years! It is comparable to Zwei kleine Schwingungen, two short pieces that appeared later, and which the composer entitled slow and calmo respectively. In both these miniatures the smallest space is filled by the greatest possible lyrical density. This is dream music indeed, free from any gravitational pull and bound to poetry.

The techniques of quotation and association remain for Rihm vital tools with which he practices aesthetic reflexion. Referring to Klavierstück 6 “Bagatellen” Wilhelm Killmayer once showed how various Hölderlin poems circle around certain vowels and sounds and thus form the foundation for later developments. The subtitle Bagatellen hits the mark because it reminds us of Beethoven, who in his own works cast in this form used exactly this method. In the middle of Rihm’s work the opening of the final piano piece from opus 118 by Brahms is quoted. The title Brahmsliebewalzer is not the only aspect to honour the composer.

What he feels is “not fast, heavier rather, often blunt, never blithe, peevish perhaps, acidic, but serious” – with every filament dedicated to the faded memory of the great romantic, without ever the danger that this might actually come about. The Ländler is dedicated to the spirit of Schubert, who leaves as he began – unsaved.

Many later Rihm works carry dedications: Auf einem anderen Blatt was dedicated to Pierre Boulez on his 75th birthday; and in Zwiesprache five close friends whom the composer lost in the year of its completion receive posthumous memorials. For its part, Wortlos was dedicated to Peter Sloterdijk on his 60th birthday. This final work is a “Lied ohne Worte” with one staff dedicated to a voice part that never enters. Rihm described this as “Two musical moments, between Vienna and Paris – 1820 and 1905 – like playing behind glass.”

Both early works, the Klavierstücke 1 and 2 receive an opus number, an old-fashioned gesture one might argue. They appeared at a time in which order and structure were of greatest priority. I love these works a lot, because their nature is capricious and free; they bristle against any kind of doctrine and will hardly dissemble. The present collection begins with these two works, ones that span a period of 38 years in Rihm’s output and which within just two-and-a-half hours demonstrate the most varied facets of the composer’s cosmos. Missing are the smaller pieces written before 1970, as are 2 Linien, a work in progress that, as Rihm himself once wrote, is meant to remain “unfinished – unfinishable”.

Markus Bellheim
Translation: Graham Lack
Wolfgang Rihm (composer); Markus Bellheim (piano)
1. Klavierstück Nr. 1 op. 8a (1970)
2. Klavierstück Nr. 2 op. 8b (1971)
3. Klavierstück Nr. 4 (1974)
4. Klavierstück Nr. 5 ›Tombeau‹ (1975)
5. Klavierstück Nr. 6 ›Bagatellen‹ (1977/78)
6. Ländler (1979)
7. Klavierstück Nr. 7 (1980)
8. Brahmsliebewalzer (1985)
9. Nachstudie (1992/94)
10. Zwiesprache (1999)  16:46
11. Auf einem anderen Blatt (2000)
12. Zwei kleine Schwingungen (2004/05)
13. Wortlos (2007)

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