Wolfgang Rihm is not only one of Germany’s most significant contemporary composers, but also one of its most prolific. With nigh on 400 works to his name as he approaches his 65th birthday next month, his latest to reach British shores is his Piano Concerto no. 2, premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 2014 (he has since found the time to pen three more concertos alone in the interim). Intriguingly, there’s no No. 1 as such, merely a smattering of concertante works for piano and orchestra in various guises, a couple of them with the title Sotto voce (‘below the voice’, or whispered). That is virtually the starting point of this new piece, which begins with a genial dialogue between soloist and groups of instruments within the smallish orchestra.
As the composer himself describes the work – “less boxing match, more chamber music” – this is a concerto closer to the Mozartian concept than to, say, the Tchaikovskian. At the climax of the first of its two movements, percussion and harp attempt to wrest the piano away from its musing but ultimately fail to disrupt the good cheer. The second movement, a rondo, is admittedly more combative, though again it tends towards harmoniousness, with the piano often embedded, for all its flashy virtuosity, in the orchestral textures. A motoric lead-in to an accompanied cadenza leads to a surprising coda in which the music simply fades away to a single note on the piano.
Throughout, there’s a strange familiarity about the musical language, hovering as it does between tonality and atonality, which makes connecting with it on a first hearing easier than one might expect from the seemingly ungraspable nature of its melodic ideas. Without making overt references, it appears to pay homage to every piano concerto of the past hundred years or more while making an original statement in itself. Yes, there are times when the music’s meandering makes one wonder when something is going to happen, but they are always ear-tweaking meanders.
The soloist in this UK première, Nicolas Hodges, had the measure of the concerto’s lyrical but restless nature. He barely had a bar off for the whole of the concerto’s 25-minute span, but his playing was eloquent and maintained a clarity of articulation throughout, and his partnership with the players of the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Lothar Koenigs was both amiable and stimulating.
Koenigs, who until last year was music director of Welsh National Opera, has a proven track record in Austro-German repertoire, with some memorable Berg, Schoenberg, Wagner and Henze to his name during his time in Cardiff. His Bruckner proved equally interesting – indeed, this was the kind of interpretation of the composer’s music that might even turn the most dogged of Brucknerphobes.
Bruckner’s symphonies are often categorised as ‘cathedrals in sound’, in other words, solid constructions of vertically imposing scale, and with the composer exhibiting an organist’s predilection for treating the orchestra like a selection of organ stops. What Koenigs did instead in his direction of the Seventh Symphony was to emphasise the horizontal, its sense of a flowing melodic and harmonic line. This was evident from the very first soaring theme in the opening movement, phrased across all instruments with rare unanimity of dynamic and articulation.
There were some individual instrumental fluffs from time to time, but Koenigs galvanised the whole orchestra to play as a single entity, in which groups of instruments came and went but didn’t succumb to the stop-start, block-like feeling of some Bruckner performances. It was an account as interesting for its fine sense of detail as much as for its strongly driven emotional impetus, such that the climax of the Adagio sounded inevitable and awe-inspiring at the same time, the inauthentic if common addition of cymbal clash sounding ineluctable. The BBC SO’s string body came across strongly, and wind solos were nicely turned, but the laurels went to the massed horns and Wagner tubas, who produced a sound both rich and distinctive.
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