By Robert Battey
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Every new piece is heard and judged against a backdrop. It’s important that the repertoire be continually refreshed and replenished, and this of course requires a sifting process through public performances, of which hits and misses are an integral part. But for a savvy living composer, there are ways to game the system a little. German composer Wolfgang Rihm, whose Piano Concerto No. 2 had its U.S. premiere Jan. 15 by Tzimon Barto with the National Symphony Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach at the Kennedy Center, is certainly a man of the moment.
Rihm (b. 1952) has hit every yardstick of success that a serious classical composer today could wish for: a Grawemeyer Award, commissions and performances by many of the top performing groups and soloists in the world (Eschenbach has been a long-time advocate), residencies at Salzburg and Lucerne, a huge published catalog (most of it recorded), and a full professorship at a prestigious school.
It is not hard to see why: He is personable, prolific, comfortable in all genres, highly erudite, and has a broad sense of musical and cultural history. His music toys with and acknowledges antecedents and expectations; it is full of ideas and contrasts; and there is often a dramatic arc of some kind that even the novice can follow. But when all is said and done, this is much ado about very little. All of the virtues I mentioned are simply vessels or trappings. Without musical content that attracts the ear, the listener is left to contemplate non-musical features, which in earlier times grew out of, synthesized, and developed perceivable structures from the basic materials.
Rihm’s harmonic palette is 97% atonal, with only occasional wisps of “remembered” melody, somewhat in the style of Berg. Assuming there even is a coherent system by which he chooses notes and chords, it is not one that most ears can in any way anticipate, and the mind not only wanders, it cannot make any connections between what it’s hearing and what went before. The second movement of this concerto is marked Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo. Leaving aside the dripping irony of applying a prim 18th-century title to this arid music, the joke (to me) seemed to be him saying, “I’m going to restate the opening theme of this movement several times; see if you can perceive it.” Well, as a conservatory-trained professional musician with ample experience in music of this ilk, I readily and openly admit defeat.
Yes, there were “expressive” devices — yearning phrases with dynamic swells — and moments of hushed beauty. There was piano virtuosity and an ending that upended expectations, stripping everything down to a single, lonely note. After a slow, turgid, and mostly quiet first movement, the Rondo threw out some bouncy, almost whimsical ideas. But there was palpable relief in the hall when the piece ended, and it was only from a sense of courtesy for Barto’s effort that the applause lasted through a second bow for the soloist. Who would ever buy a recording of this piece and listen actively to it for musical enjoyment? If Rihm’s music outlasts him, it would represent a tectonic shift in the culture.
Eschenbach certainly couldn’t be accused of piling on, though. He chased the castor oil with two of the sweetest dishes in the symphonic repertoire, Dvořák’s Carnival Overture and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. The Dvořák, sadly, brought out the worst in everyone: blaring winds and brass, and no attempt whatsoever by Eschenbach to balance anything. His approach to Berlioz’s symphony, though, was interesting; he pulled out and even distended the macabre, grotesque elements of the finale to extremes, but his handling of the rest of the piece was more natural. His rubatos and highlighting in the early movements seemed to come from the notes and nothing else. It sounded like Schubert or Mendelssohn (he eschewed the optional cornet part in “Un bal”).
Eschenbach is a musician of depth and imagination but almost inept technique, and the poor violins didn’t know how to interpret his flailings in the quiet opening. Of course, the National Symphony (like every orchestra) knows this piece well, and there were no disasters, although the low brass had intonation problems in the “Dies irae” theme. There were some lovely, gently blended chords, such as at the end of the first movement, and wonderfully controlled pianissimo passages in the slow movement. There are a number of new players this season — the orchestra’s concertmaster for this program was Justine Lamb-Budge, a candidate for the associate concertmaster chair — and concentration seemed higher than normal. Certainly the exuberant ovation must have been gratifying to all concerned.
Robert Battey has written regularly for the Washington Post since 2006 and for Strings magazine since 1985. He is a professional cellist, music director for the Gettysburg Chamber Music Workshop, and an attorney.