Wolfgang Rihm Weaves Reflective, Poetic Requiem

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performed in Lucerne under Mariss Jansons.
(Photos courtesy of the Lucerne Festival)
By J.J. Van Vlasselaer

LUCERNE — Wolfgang Rihm, creator of more than 400 works and successor to Pierre Boulez as director of the Lucerne Festival Academy, was at the center of attention at the Lucerne Festival’s Easter Festival this year. He contributed two works performed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra on April 8 under its music director, Mariss Jansons: the eight-minute Gruss-Moment 2 (Greetings-Moment 2) and the nearly 80-minute Requiem-Strophen, which had received its premiere March 30 in Munich by the same forces. The Lucerne concert was also an initiative of the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation.

Jansons with sopranos Mojca Erdmann, left, and Anna Prohaska.

Rihm composed Gruss-Moment 2 in memory of Boulez. Far from grieving music, it constitutes beyond death “the continuing existence of the artist’s work” and follows a first Gruss-Moment composed for the great French composer and conductor’s 90th birthday a few months before his death in January 2016. It also constituted a perfect opening to the Requiem-Strophen for choir and large orchestra, two sopranos and baritone, and carries the same message of transformed continuity, questioning the metamorphosis of death’s presence in life, and perhaps what one might call “eternity” in and by the potential creativity of music.

Through his transformative “collage” of poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke, Michelangelo BuonarrotiJohannes Bobrowski, and Hans Sahl, Rihm creates in Requiem-Strophen a reflexive questioning in which not only the intertwining of the texts but also his music fully contributes. Indeed, it results in many poetic moments expressed by Jansons’ inspired conducting and takes us on the journey of the mystery of death and how it turns life into our reality.

Baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann with Jansons.

In spirit, obviously, it is far away from Verdi and Berlioz, even from Mozart’s “Enlightenment” Requiem. And because anti-pathos reigns, the Requiem-Strophen is closer to Fauré’s quietness, to Michelangelo’s sculpture Night, and to Brahms’ later skepticism in which Rihm recognizes himself (the opening text in Requiem-Strophen is Isaiah 40: 6-7: “All flesh is grass…”). Ultimately, Requiem-Strophen is about human reality and the necessity of its unique, unanswered question. It proceeds from a world in which late Shostakovich works — the 13th “Babi Yar” symphony, the 14th symphony set to 11 poems, the melodic cycle on sonnets by Michelangelo, and his final work, the Sonata for Viola and Piano — are some of the most revealing examples.

As in Gruss-Moment 2, Rihm’s requiem is about the metamorphoses of being; it also tells us that beyond death, human works can continue the rare questioning of what it is to be alive. This reflection in Rihm’s richly textured and contemporary melodic world has, in fact, been preceded by several other, shorter Requiems, like his “Communio,” part of Requiem der Versohnung (Reconciliation Requiem), and “Memoria,” the centerpiece of three Requiem fragments composed on texts by Nelly Sachs for the opening of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.

Finally, carrying forward the interrogations of the texts in their overarching dialogue, Rihm’s music orchestrates the words toward their faraway “places beyond all distance,” as Hans Sahl suggests in the epilogue poem “Strophen.” It is a universe where “the human soul likes to leave alone,” as Arkel asks for quietness at Melisande’s deathbed in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande—and Maeterlinck’s world where “There are so many things we will never know…we always wait…and then…”

Wolfgang Rihm with the Lucerne Academy.

Of course, this remarkable musical journey into innerness could not have been given its full breadth had it not had such top-level interpreting forces. The Bavarian orchestra has been led since 2003 by Jansons, one of the most fascinating conductors I have heard. He has brought to this highly disciplined ensemble a richness of sound and musical transparency close to the spirit of chamber music, both a powerful internal breathing and a touch of grace.

Two sopranos, Mojca Erdmann and Anna Prohaska, united in sparkling duos, the baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann in his  commanding projection and his expressive and sensitive reading, and the perfectly balanced and warm-sounding choir of the Bavarian Radio were all at the height of their art. Here was a “premiere” ensemble that set the standards as high as Rihm could have dreamed them.

Requiem-Strophen is a major and meaningful contemporary work, and in the closing days of Lucerne’s Easter Festival it was very much at home in its theme of spirituality.

J.J. Van Vlasselaer served as music critic of Le Droit ‎in Ottawa from 1972 to 2015.