Classical CD Reviews

WOLFGANG RIHM: Symphony “Nähe fern” – Hans Christoph Begemann, ba. /Luzerner Sinfonieorchester /James Gaffigan – Harmonia mundi

Not an essential work, for sure, but one that devotees of contemporary music will want to hear.

Published on September 27, 2013

WOLFGANG RIHM: Symphony “Nähe fern” – Hans Christoph Begemann, baritone /Luzerner Sinfonieorchester /James Gaffigan – Harmonia mundi HMC 902153, 47:35 ***: 

My first experience with Wolfgang Rihm’s “repurposing” of the music of older composers came when I heard Rihm’s bizarre tribute, if you want to call it that, to Schumann, Fremde Szene (“Strange Scenes”). Based (again, speaking broadly) on themes from the Schumann trios, this work for piano trio was designed by Rihm to be as disorienting to the musicians playing it as to the listener. Rihm’s object? to create “a portrait of an already eroded Schumann, a Schumann on whom traces of [musical] decay can already be seen.”

No such musical psychoanalysis in the case of Rihm’s Symphony “Nähe fern, jointly commissioned by the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester and the famed Lucerne Festival. Instead, the four pieces that make up the work were intended as “pendants to the Brahms symphonies” and presented in a series of concerts that stretched over the course of a year. The first performance of all four pieces in the current form of a rather diffuse symphony came in August 2012. However, the recording was set down in June 2012, presumably following the premiere of the last of the four pieces—not the usual order of things, perhaps, but not unprecedented. I would have liked to have learned more about the occasion for recording of the work, but this lack of information is only one of the gripes I have with the lofty and somewhat opaque notes written by an admiring Mark Sattler. Despite the raft of platitudes, I find myself connecting with Rihm’s work only in the later going. The last two movements do manage an interesting synergy with the Brahms symphonies, as fragments of the Second and Third Symphonies flit wraith-like through the score. Rihm comments, “Obviously, no quotations; echoes, to be sure, but as if they were early forms. As if they had not yet taken on the shape they will have in Brahms. An original configuration reconfigured.” I’d dispute that there are no quotations since I clearly identified passages from the two Brahms symphonies mentioned above, but still, the basic tenet is true—this is Brahms at a remove, Brahms filtered through another musical consciousness: “distant proximity—proximate distance [ferne Nähe, nähe Ferne].” Hence the title of the work.

For me, though, the piece doesn’t come into its own until those final two movements. The first movement is monolithic, glacial in its pace, turgid, not a very special way to begin a tribute to Brahms, whose symphonic first movements enshrine the sonata-allegro form in all its variety of expression and developmental complexity. The second movement is an orchestral version of a song originally with piano accompaniment, Dämmrung senkte sich von oben (“Dusk Has Fallen from Above”), based on a late poem of Goethe. The excuse for its inclusion in this chiefly orchestral work, as far as I can tell, is that Brahms himself set the same poem to music. Rihm’s is an effective, and affecting, treatment of the poem, but I’m not sure it furthers the symphonic argument all that well.

Thus my overall impression is that Rihm’s four orchestral pieces don’t really add up to a symphony as we traditionally think of it; maybe I just object to the moniker “symphony” because, as I say, all movements except the first have a certain appeal and can be enjoyed in the same way as Berg’s or Schoenberg’s pieces for orchestra. On the other hand, I wouldn’t place this work in a class with, say, Luciano Berio’s fascinating Rendering, based on fragments of the symphony Schubert was working on when he died. For that matter, Nähe fern is not as successful as Rihm’s own Fremde Szene, something of a classic in contemporary chamber music circles.

As for the performance, I doubt there’ll be another soon, and I’m pretty confident we won’t need a replacement. These musicians have lived with the work since its inception and play it with all the understanding and conviction a composer could want. They play very well, too, for American conductor James Gaffigan, since 2011 the Lucerne Symphony’s chief conductor. Harmonia mundi’s sound is big, plush, powerful where it needs to be, matching the heft of this well-upholstered score. The timing is short; with over four hundred works to Rihm’s credit, the orchestra might have found a suitable encore among them. Still, this is a release worth sampling by devotees of contemporary music and those following the career of one of today’s most prolific and successful composers.

—Lee Passarella




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