[With sincere gratitude to Bettina Tiefenbrunner-Horak of Universal Edition for her generous help and support, this essay is the first in an ongoing series of meditations on the recent works of the German composer Wolfgang Rihm. —D.A.]
Notions of the cyclical and the fragmentary permeate the 40-year output of Wolfgang Rihm, perhaps the most prolific composer of our era. How many composers have not five or ten major orchestral works to their name, but instead a number closer to 100? His pieces often bear the same features, among them a preference for extremes of high and low registers and the coexistence of rhythmic frenzy and stasis, yet the results always differ. One of his major series from the 1990s, in terms of orchestration if not number, is Vers une symphonie fleuve, whose four parts span 1992–2000 and which offer four distinct variations of similar material. A satisfactory recording of I (1992–95) is not extant; its significance within the overall cycle will need to remain a mystery for the moment. I know only that, like the subsequent three works with this title, I features two distant trumpeters and two distant percussionists in addition to the main orchestral body of 83 players and that it was premièred by the Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg under conductor Gerd Albrecht.
At 13 minutes, II (1992–95) is both the most concise and most triumphal piece within the set. Günter Neuhold with the Badische Staatskapelle led its première. After a somewhat typical, nebulous introduction, the music picks up the pace, its fluctuating string textures accompanied by held clarinets and bassoons and bisected at times by plangent flutes. A brass chorale, to be the ineluctable goal of III and IV, resounds with more fervor here, yet the cumulative effect of III is missed. The conclusion, unique for this series, is loud: The listener has no opportunity to recover from the theme, almost at once transformed into a very potent cadential passage.
III (1992–95) begins with a motif on low clarinets, a Rihm trademark. III is the most cogent work of the series and also the only one in which a definite sense of tension and release is audible. The momentum churns slowly for the first ten minutes, but more and more elements are introduced to accompany accelerations in tempi. After some fine and delicate writing for subsections of the orchestra, including persistent percussive rumblings reminiscent of late Dallapiccola, and some brash moments for the distant quartet, the glorious brass fanfare appears, its motif moderately reminiscent of Rihm’s ballet Tutuguri (1980–82). The composer has wisely not ended the piece here, however. Instead, the heft of the work is allowed to ebb and dissemble, the music turning sorrowful before fading. Gianluigi Gelmetti and the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart were the first performers [Vers une symphonie fleuve III appears on Vol. 3 of Hänssler Classic’s ongoing Rihm edition (Hänssler Classic 93.227), as well as in RCA’s Musik in Deutschland series. G.C.C.].
The 30-minute IV (1992–97, revised 1998–2000) is the longest and most meandering entry, never finding any kernel of direction or urgency. The composer withdrew the first version and created an improved edition for performance in 2001, one of the last concerts led by Gary Bertini with the Münchener Philharmoniker. Alas, this version is itself unsatisfactory. Though the theme makes its predicted appearance here as well, the trumpets and percussion make their presence known and the knocking noises recur, but the surrounding material is much less compelling. The work’s highlight is its imposing introduction for strings and brass in alternation, a more modest, less insistent version of the tempest music that heralds Act I of Wagner’s Die Walküre. The epilogue is a subdued echo of the introduction for strings alone, the music now stripped of its might. In between these poles, the music is surprising in its jaunty, perhaps martial nature, and its aimlessness. Some instances of creative orchestration notwithstanding, the overall effect is one of a formless journey, neither unpleasant nor inviting.
Rihm here proves that while multiple glances at the same object are useful and quite often revelatory, some looks will invariably be more memorable than others are.