It’s quite rare nowadays to rock up to a concert having absolutely no prior knowledge of the music you’re about to hear. Ticket prices, an abundance of established concert repertoire, and an understandable reflex to ‘play it safe’ all contribute to our penchant for the known in the concert hall. And yet, there can be no truer place to discover a work or a composer’s compositional voice than in front of a band of top musicians as they craft this unknown music out of nothing into something. That is the thrill of attending a performance without preconceptions, with the sole expectation of discovery.

Wolfgang Rihm, © Eric Marinitsch
Wolfgang Rihm,
© Eric Marinitsch

Wolfgang Rihm is a German composer who is 60 this year. To celebrate his birthday, the London Sinfonietta put on a concert featuring three of his works, all UK premières. They also celebrated his teaching ability by programming pieces by two of his students, Rebecca Saunders and Jörg Widmann. The resulting performance was for me one of those exciting confrontations with the musical unknown.

We began with Rihm’s Ricercare: Music in Memoriam Luigi Nono, a work in which fragments of ensemble sound are juxtaposed with blocks of silence. This construction site of sound and silence – in which interacting instrumental snippets provide sound effects rather than any sort of melodic material – was managed impeccably by conductor Thierry Fischer, who showed his powers of concentration and nerves of steel in keeping the players perfectly together and maintaining the silences for just long enough to make everyone feel slightly on edge. The fragments of sound gradually increased in length and tension to reach the work’s climax, in which deafeningly high pitches were constantly reiterated by percussionists’ bows on metallophone bars, the subsequent silence offering tangible relief to the listener. Thus although I didn’t feel any particular emotional response to the piece, I did feel a physical response to the music through Rihm’s manipulation of sound.

Rebecca Saunders’ Quartet for clarinet/bass clarinet, accordion, double bass and piano followed: this was a fascinating combination of instruments, which combined to form an amazingly atmospheric soundworld. In this piece of three continuous sections, each instrument seemed to have distinct human personalities. The first section documented a heated exchange between the angry, percussive piano and the nervous, jittering accordion, mediated by a somewhat lackadaisical double bass, droning away in the depths with microtonal portamenti, and an exquisitely meditative clarinet, which eventually lost it and turned nasty. Extended techniques featured in the haunting second section: the piano maintaining a Satie-esque, expressive chordal passage over which the bass clarinet screeched multiphonics and the double bass detuned to hit the depths of the sonic spectrum. A stunningly beautiful pianissimo accordion passage, evoking images of a distant church organ fluctuating between consonance and dissonance, led into the third section, which was dominated by head-banging piano discords. Quartet constituted the emotional pinnacle of the concert for me; Saunders’ imaginative use of her instruments’ extensive vocabulary and sculptural moulding of individual lines created an intensely beautiful listening experience.

Some light relief was on offer in Jörd Widmann’s Dubairische Tänze, a wonderfully humorous caricature of Bavarian carnival dances. Featuring novelty percussion (including two wash-basins full of water), it was a raucous, bitonal romp, and not without subtleties: musical contrast came via two spooky music-box variations and a mournful passage for muted violins. An overstated march ended this remarkable showcase of virtuosic compositional grotesquery.

Rihm’s music returned post-interval with Nach-Schrift, a piece for a virtuoso pianist and 16 instrumentalists. A rhythmic ostinato in the piano and bongos shot through the music with a driving energy. In the central section, an extraordinarily wild and complex piano part emerged from the texture, which subsequently reverted to its state of mass instrumental interjections on the overriding voice of the ostinato. It was a fantastically exciting performance of a work brimming with intensity and power.

Will Sound More Again ended the concert, and was, for me, the least successful piece in it; a contrapuntal texture in which melodic strands bounced between instruments was without sufficient contrast to remain interesting. Having said this, amongst all the musical bustle there were moments of sublime loneliness, at which the dense texture imploded on itself and left the sole voice of a pianissimo accordion – augurs of Rihm’s influence on Saunders, surely.

My perplexity at Will Sound More Again, however, did little to detract from the concert’s success. The London Sinfonietta excelled in their playing, which was exciting, engaging and expert throughout. And equally excellent was the concert’s very conception: juxtaposing Rihm’s music with that of his pupils was a stroke of inspiration, even if the students’ music occasionally upstaged that of the master. Most importantly, though, it highlighted the continuous, living, growing nature of musical composition as a discipline – and equally, the continuous, living, growing nature of musical reception as an experience.

****1