Rolf RIEHM (b. 1937)
Shifting (1994) [23:04]
Archipel Remix (1999) [49:21]
Guy Braunstein (violin: Shifting)
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Dennis Russell Davies (Shifting),
rec. March 1995 (Shifting), January 2008, Philharmonie Köln
WERGO WER7357-2 [72:39]
Frankfurt-based and award-winning composer Rolf Riehm is now one of the grandees of the European avant-garde in music with a highly respectable discography to his name, including very fine releases on the Cybele and Telos labels.
The booklet notes for Shifting take the form of a letter from the composer to soloist Guy Braunstein, who also performed at the premiere. "It is above all an enormous, unfolding melody. For me, it is like a river that continually gains new strength from the downhill slope of its landscape..." The melody does indeed unfold slowly, a significant part of the earlier section with the violin penetrating its developing orchestral partner on a single note. Intensity grows, the soloist seemingly left by the wayside for further swathes of orchestral events, but there is poetry around the corner - the downhill impetus by no means an uninterrupted flow. Shifting is a work of at times almost elegant plateaus, but always with a crescendo and falling-off point and a built-in sense of impending crisis that keeps one hypnotised and in a constant sense of anticipation. The orchestra sets in with grand gestures at times, but is also used in a chamber-musicike way, at times exploring timbres with microscopic detail. To my ears this is a kind of elusive modern Romanticism that maintains a sincere depth of expression while avoiding the directness of conventional tonality or cadence. Wrong-footing us and keeping us in a state of suspension is all part of the way Shifting is built, and indeed, the composer delivers his spoiler at the end of that letter: "...shortly before the end: no more restrictions, no excessive pressures, only free movement. This is the true beginning of the piece!"
Archipel Remix is perhaps an easier place to begin f Riehm's music is unfamiliar to you, the title touching "on much that is characteristic not only of this piece, but also of Rolf Riehm's personal style as a whole." The geographical nature of an archipelago is referred to as "a fragile ensemble" of islands and inlets "whose unity is not based on any particular common quality or unifying formal principle," their kinship coming "from nothing but the nature of the constellation itself, the random fact of the proximity of its elements." Archipel Remix is a place of musical events separated by calm, sustained sound, almost a 'silence' between those islands. There is a strong sense of the abstract to go along with the free-form structural nature of the piece, but there are plenty of surprises - moments of consonance, a movement in which Chopin's Polonaise in F-sharp minor Op. 44 is invoked to create a swelling shape of exotic drama, others where familiarity and almost tangible tonality mix with a sense of barely controlled chaos. There are passages and movements of almost Wagnerian tonal stress and the monumentality of Messiaen, a disembodied voice emerges, the spirits of Froberger, Mahler and others are invoked in a friendly clash of musical periods, the crassly banal can be put up against the most intense of statements, and the orchestra can as easily be cut out and pasted in unexpected places as text in a word document.
Archipel Remix is one of those pieces that 'has it all', and if you are prepared to take the plunge then there is an enormous amount to get your teeth into. A review such as this can barely scrape the surface of what goes on in the course of such a work, but rest assured that it is packed with wonders, and will yield many riches to those with ears to hear. The recordings and performances on this Wergo release are very good indeed, and the whole package is a very straightforward recommendation to anyone looking for new angles on the old Western traditions of concerto and symphony.