By Rebecca Schmid
BERLIN – With his sprawling, ritualistic Tutuguri (1980-82), Wolfgang Rihm set out to liberate music from the strictures of the past, transforming it into a stream “subject only to its own urges.” The Musikfest Berlin opened this year’s program at the Philharmonie on Sept. 3 with a concert performance of the work, a “Poème dansé” featuring an actor but not dancers alongside the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding.
Approximately 120 minutes in length, Tutuguri is based on a poem created for a radio play by the French poet and actor Antonin Artaud, who in 1947 spent time with Mexican Indians. Artaud’s text describes the rite of the black sun in which horsemen gallop toward a circle of crosses. The final stanza, in a loose autobiographical reference, tells of a wounded, naked man who becomes one with his horse.
That Artaud was writing after being released from psychiatric wards in Paris (he struggled his whole life with mental illness) was brought into the foreground when the actor Graham Forbes Valentine appeared onstage convulsing and clutching a crumpled piece of paper as he launched into an at times guttural recitation of the poem.
The repeated flute tone which opens the score enters as “the horse of bleeding flesh” loses its head and prances on a cliff, drawing attention to the anxiety-inducing effect of the solitary instrument. But Rihm specifically endeavored not to follow the poem in narrative fashion, and the personification of the poet in this semi-staged performance of the opening tableau (“Anrufung…das schwarze Loch…”) in some ways detracted from the music’s power.
Explosive gusts from six percussion stations, extreme dynamics in the winds, stretches of chugging minimalist-like textures, and unexpected dialogue within the orchestra manage to create dramatic tension through purely instrumental means. Sound surfaces enter into enormous friction with one another before either the percussion or the brass break through with brutal passion. Toward the end of the second tableau (“schwarze und rote Tänze…das Pferd…”), the earthy, primordial colors and stabbing rhythms briefly call to mind Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, which, despite its ubiquity, is rarely presented in its original form as a ballet.
In the case of Tutuguri, Rihm in 1984 added to his notes the possibility of performing it without “stage, sets and movement,” adding that it might even be conducive to “unfettered imagination.” Confronted with just the score, the listener is indeed free to envision his or her own scenario: A blare of trumpets becomes a burning sun, snapping basses the danger looming on the desert. But the rhythmic drive of the piece also seems to cry out for dancers. The orchestra is sometimes played like a giant percussion instrument, with raw, interlocking textures that pave the way for some frightening climaxes.
In the third tableau (“der Peyotl-Tanz…die letzte Sonne…der schreiende Mann”), just when it seemed that the musical ideas were being milked until there was nothing left, gongs at the back of the hall crashed over siren-like brass glissandi, a plucked harp, metallic strings, and shrieking piccolos. Harding elicited orchestral gestures now incisive, now graceful in this consummate performance of the work. Given the overly dramatic recitation of the poem (which is not included in the score) at the outset of the work, it seemed gratuitous when Valentine slapped himself like a body percussionist and screamed in agony from the back of the hall.
By the final tableau (“Kreuze…das Hufeisen…die sechs Männer…der Siebte…”), the orchestra is reduced to its six percussion stations, corresponding with Rihm’s desire that the music grow ever “keener, tauter, more impatient and explosive.” Soft thumping erupted into waves of snare drums. When the percussionists broke out into a collective scream, it seemed a genuine release of energy. But the stage looked awfully bare, an impression that was only heightened as the chorus, which recites a nonsense poem by Artaud (“kré/kré/pek…”) in rhythmic counterpoint with the players, was heard per the composer’s instructions not in person but rather on recording, streaming through the speakers. In the absence of choreography, one begged for more.
Tutuguri nevertheless ended with a visceral jolt as cymbals, gongs, and the voices broke through incessantly repetitive writing for percussion. The long stretches of unchanging material may in fact serve to mesmerize the listener, making such moments all the more powerful. In that sense, one could label Rihm a “neo-Romantic” composer even in this early work. But his feat, then and in more recent works like his opera Proserpina, lies in the ability to flow between disparate material like a winding stream, creating images at once vivid and subject to interpretation. The composer, seated in the audience, made a grateful gesture toward the percussionists before taking to the stage with an air of contentment.
Musikfest Berlin continues through Sept. 20. Other percussion-themed pieces on this year’s schedule include Galina Ustwolskaja’s Third Symphony; works by Edgar Varèse (Desert, Ionisation, and Arcana); the German premiere of Olga Neuwirth’s Percussion Concerto Trurliade-Zone Zero; and Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.