Symphonie “Nähe Fern”
James Gaffigan, cond; Luzerne SO ; Hans Christoph Begemann (bar)
HARMONIA MUNDI 902153 (47:35
Text and Translation)
Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952) has always been the champion of a continuing “Great Germanic” musical tradition. His music has always struck me as being most deeply rooted in early 20th-century Expressionism, in both its spirit and technique. He is also one of the most prolific composers of our age—this recording’s notes put his tally at over 400 works currently. The work under review is obviously one very close to the composer’s heart: i.e., a sort of “meta-symphony” which is a meditation on the Brahms cycle. The subtitle translates as “Distant Proximity,” which is of course a wonderful poetic rendition of the state of the core romantic repertoire for any composer today, no matter how sympathetic (or not) s/he may be to it. Whatever Rihm chooses to do with such a concept will be inherently interesting, though its ultimate success is another matter.
The piece is in four movements, each focusing on a respective Brahms symphony. The effect is dreamlike, where quotes (literal or varied) from the sources flow in a stream-of-consciousness. There are quite striking moments, such as when the opening of the Brahms First is turned into an open ended sequential ascent. Or the end of the second movement, where the opening of the Second Symphony wanders into a space both intimate and cavernous, and seems to be suddenly annihilated in a flash. And one can find such moments at any point throughout the work. (Incidentally, in the booklet notes Rihm states that there are “no quotations.” I suppose it depends on how one defines the term. Yes, there are no entire sections made of only Brahms, but throughout there are familiar motives and harmonies, “recontextualized.”)
Having said such, I admit I remain pondering the question “What’s the point?” If it’s to emphasize Rihm’s connection to and admiration of Brahms, his overall output makes that case strongly already. If it’s to make something truly new from Brahms’s music, I can’t say that this piece accomplishes that; its sound is too deeply rooted in the coloristic language of pre-serial “middle” Schoenberg to open genuinely new vistas.
And if it’s to do Brahms one better, then it fails. In a sense such a project is always doomed, simply because Brahms created one of the most fully realized, organic, universal yet personal musical languages of the Western tradition. Like many composers in youth, I found it a bit stodgy and tedious. Now I see how foolish I was; like Schoenberg in his essay “Brahms the Progressive” I now see the music as wildly pathbreaking. This is not just because of motivic unity and development, as Schoenberg rightfully pointed out, but also in an astonishing harmonic practice that on its surface seems quite straightforward, but that on examination reveals itself as chromatic and surprising as anything in Wagner, his great rival.
Two things work against Rihm in taking up this challenge. One is harmony. For me too often Rihm’s enriched chromatic palette takes the Brahmsian template and clouds it, canceling out its subtleties and impact. The other is orchestration. Brahms, while quite conservative in this regard, created one of the fullest, most balanced orchestral sounds. Rihm, using a far more varied (and constantly varying) range of instrumental colors, creates a far more “abrasive” sound, again in line with Expressionist aesthetics.
Each of these pieces was originally designed as a “pendant” to be performed with its respective Brahms symphony in a season’s cycle. As such I think they probably would be more successful, the aspect of connection and commentary would be more evident and immediate. And I certainly salute the creative curatorial instinct from Luzerne that commissioned the work.
The second movement (of five) is a short orchestral song for baritone, setting a Goethe text that includes the symphony’s subtitle. (And that text was one which Brahms set as well.) Performances all sound excellent. I’m unable to muster much enthusiasm for the final product. Perhaps I’ll wake up some morning and “get it” and rue my remarks. But I think Rihm’s approach would have to be more radical, and strangely enough, more “impersonal” (such as making a work out of nothing
quotations) in order that something more original could come out of this encounter with the repertoire.