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Wolfgang RIHM (b. 1952)
Music for Violin and Orchestra - Volume 1
Dritte Musik (1993) [17:40]
Lichtzwang (In memoriam Paul Celan) (1975-6) [18:04]
Gedicht des Malers (2014) [16:08]
Tianwa Yang (violin)
Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz/Christoph-Mathias Mueller
rec. 2016, Philharmonie, Ludwigshafen, Germany
NAXOS 8.573812 [52:05]

Music for Violin and Orchestra - Volume 2
Gesungene Zeit (Musik für Violine und Orchester Nr. 2) (1991-2) [27:50]
Lichtes Spiel (Ein Sommerstück fur Violine und kleines Orchester) (2009) [17:28]
COLL’ARCO (Musik für Violine und Orchester Nr. 4) (2008) [30:53]
Tianwa Yang (violin)
Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz/Darrel Ang
rec. 2016, Philharmonie, Ludwigshafen, Germany.
NAXOS 8.573667 [76:24]

Wolfgang Rihm is a major figure in contemporary German music but is relatively little known in the UK. This is partly because he so prolific. There are over four hundred works in his catalogue, which makes it difficult to know where to start. Furthermore, he has the habit of revising older works in new ones – there are at least four works based on his Sphäre – and this is confusing. However, he has a particular interest in violin concertante works, of which he has written at least the six works recorded on these two discs. Like some other composers he tends to avoid the word concerto and instead prefers rather enigmatic phrases as titles.

His idiom derives from the expressionism of about a hundred years ago, with perhaps a particular debt to the Berg of the Wozzeck period. Not surprisingly, one can also hear echoes of the Berg of the Violin Concerto, which is not expressionist but serial, though in fact frequently reminiscent of traditional harmony. Rihm also has some trademark idioms of his own, such as a fondness for very high-lying solo lines, also for deep and crunchy basses and, listeners should be warned, for occasional very loud explosions reinforced by plenty of percussion. That said, he is not difficult to listen to and there is much that is attractive about his work, though it does tend to be serious rather than playful.

The six works here are not played in chronological order. The Dritte Musik, with which we begin, appears to be in fact the Musik fur Violine und Orchester Nr. 3, which is otherwise absent. This is a brooding and melancholy work, with some highly rhythmic passages and some strange sounds which come from including an accordion in the orchestra. There are long lyrical lines interrupted by abrupt and jagged passages.

Lichtzwang (Light duress) is the earliest music here, and in fact is Musik fur Violine und Orchester Nr. 1. It commemorates Paul Celan, a Romanian-born German-language poet of Jewish background whose work was dominated by the Holocaust, in which his parents perished, and who eventually committed suicide; Lichtzwang was the title of his last collection. It begins with a crash then soars into the stratosphere from the which the soloist emerges – in fact like the second movement of the Berg concerto. There is some savage music, also a distorted chorale – again, echoes of Berg – and a sweet sad melody.

Gedicht des Makers (Poem of the painter) was inspired by a portrait of the violinist Ysaÿe by Max Beckman. This is an exploratory and ruminative work, less explosive than the others here, and the most recent of all these works.

The second disc begins with Gesungene Zeit (Time chant), possibly Rihm’s best-known work, thanks to its having been commissioned and recorded by Anne Sophie Mutter. The solo violin plays continuously, starting at the very top of its range. This ethereal writing gives way to dialogue with the orchestra, with passages of aggressive brass and percussion before finally returning to the heights. This work is already a modern classic.

Lichtes Spiel (Light play) was also written for, and recorded by, Mutter, and is lyrical and even playful. Rihm subtitled this A Summer Piece and said he intended ‘something light but not lightweight.’ This it is, and it is arguably the most attractive music on these two discs.

Finally, COLL’ARCO (With the bow) is the longest of all Rihm’s violin concertante works. I have to say that I found this by some way the least interesting of all these pieces: the gestures seemed to me too reminiscent of ones I had already heard in other works and the piece had little new to say to me.

Tianwa Yang already has a sizable discography, including Rihm’s works for violin and piano, and is both confident and expressive in his music. I would like to be able to compare her versions of the two works written for Mutter with Mutter’s own recordings, but I have to admit that I have not heard them. The orchestral playing by the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz is assured and powerful. Both conductors, though new to me, have good track records and seem thoroughly in command of their forces, and the recordings are excellent. There are notes in English and German on the works and in English only on the performers. Naxos’s continuing commitment to contemporary music is much to be commended.

Stephen Barber

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