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WOLFGANG RIHM - Klavierstücke 1-7 (first complete performance)
Bunte Blätter Op. 99
Ian Pace (piano) with pianist Mark Knoop in Klavierstücke 3 for piano duet
Great Hall King's College, London 11 July 2003

For the first time ever anywhere, marathon man Ian Pace gave complete Wolfgang Rihm’s major set of piano pieces written between 1970 and 1981, together with a late cycle of fourteen pieces by Schumann, one of the composers most admired by Rihm.

I have sporadically enjoyed Rihm's works, notably the opera Jacob Lenz at the Almeida Festival many years ago, and more recently his piano trios by the Trio Jean Paul in recital and on CD, with Rihm coupled, as here,with Schumann.

As against those positive impressions, I was repelled by the extravagant, overloaded 55 mins orchestral work Jagden und Formen (version No. X) in Luxembourg, and found myself out of my depth and unable to identify with Rihm's aesthetic in these piano works last night. (Ian Pace himself admits below to some delay and difficulty in coming to appreciate this important composer, who remains far better known in Germany than in UK.)

Of the piano pieces, the most arresting, and indeed quite exciting, was the theatrical Klavierstuck 3, for piano duet, in which Ian Pace was aided and abetted by Mark Knoop, about whom no information was provided in the programme (an obviously very accomplished contemporary music pianist who appears to hail from Australia - surfing the Net, I found that Matthew Shlomowitz's Thinking, Remembering was composed for him to play at the Sydney Spring Festival of New Music).

Together, Pace & Knoop attacked the keyboard and innards of the instrument with hands and drumsticks, arms and voices, and with unprecedented ferocity, like unto nothing you'd ever have heard for the usually decorous medium of four-handed piano duet playing, leaving a chastened Bosendorfer which did not sound as if it had quite recovered in time for the Schumann item.

Rihm's piano pieces veer from manic activity to stasis - "ultra-dialectical force-fields", as Pace puts it - but the Great Hall at King's was quite the wrong place to perform them, as the quiet music and the subtleties of internal resonances inside the piano were absorbed into extraneous noise, seemingly from extractor fans close by - in the past there I had wondered about air conditioning being the cause. [To illustrate this difficulty, listen to some quiet extracts from Klavierstücke 6.]

6Additionally, listening becomes fraught for unschooled listeners when the logic of what notes are put on paper, if any exists, remains inaccessible aurally - my illustration is of Rihm lecturing and presumably explaining his methods.

Wolfgang Rihm at Darmstadt

I leave it there, and append here for interested readers Ian Pace's introduction and programme notes for the first four of Rihm's Klavierstücke - illuminating as they are, as always, I'd wish he'd explained some of the more arcane references, e.g. to the 'second escapement' technique (PGW) :-

Rihm's Klavierstücke are not a cycle in the conventional sense, just a set of piano pieces written mostly in his first mature decade of composition. They have never been presented complete before, but I feel that there exist sufficient degrees of both coherence and diversity so as to be meaningful in such a presentation.

Rihm is a composer for whom my interest and admiration developed a little later than other of my major contemporary musical enthusiasms (Stockhausen, Nono, Cage, Feldman, Kagel, Xenakis, Lachenmann, Ferneyhough, Finnissy, etc.); nowadays I have no doubt at all about the intensity, potency, extravagance and generosity of his music.

One senses some of Rihm's early development through the course of the seven works presented here, as the music develops both in its distinctiveness and multifariousness. I continue to be struck by, for all the trumpeting of Rihm's 'neo-romanticism' (a term which has a very different meaning in German music to its Anglo-Saxon equivalent), the extent to which his keyboard idiom exploits to the maximum types of figurations, dynamics, articulations, gestures, that seem to be absolutely at cross-purposes to that which would be conventionally associated with a 'romantic' style (at least in the sense that the term has come to mean in 20th century keyboard parlance).

Rihm alternates extremes continually, with little middle ground, producing ultra-dialectical force-fields even when alluding to found materials from musical history. His harsh, brutal, stabbing accents, sometimes in the context of otherwise pianissimo passages, quite exceed many widely-held notions of taste and balance and continuity, and necessitate particular keyboard approaches that similarly exceed the boundaries of what is commonly taught and practised (I would argue that actually these factors have precedents in the music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, some Liszt, even sometimes Brahms, that 20th century performance practice has for the most part sought to eliminate in it's construction of the 'classical' and the 'romantic'). These are all qualities that interest me deeply, and reasons why I am drawn to this music that for all its allusions remains strikingly modern and relevant in a musical world that still seeks always to place historicity in opposition to contemporaneity, while I would believe the two qualities are mutually supportive.

There is no obvious referential link between the Schumann and Rihm pieces presented here (as one finds between Rihm's trio Fremde Szenen and Schumann's trio); I choose Schumann simply as both a favourite composer of my own and one in whose work I believe some of the strongest affinities and precedents are to be found for Rihm's contemporary concerns. (I.P.)

WOLFGANG RIHM - Klavierstücke Nr. 1-3 op. 8 (1970-71)

The first three of Rihm's Klavierstücke, which share an opus number, have a number of common qualities as well as a progressive sense of development. Klavierstück 1 evinces a type of post-expressionistic harmonic and gestural language, constructed from a series of short sections delineated in the score by a series of numbered tempo categories, usually some variant of either very slow or very fast. Both explosiveness and lyricism are generally presented in somewhat fragmentary fashion, only occasionally allowed a relatively more sustained exposition along the route towards the uneasy calm of the end. Klavierstück 2 continues in this vein, though here the material types (now including repeated notes and chords, groups of grace notes, use of the 'second escapement' technique, highly still passages with chronometrically notated durations) are allowed a little more extended presentation, as well as a more palpable and audible development, which in various ways intensifies the force of the contrasts.

With Klavierstuck 3, for piano duo, the use of four hands allows an even greater degree of manicness at the outset (including some material that anticipates the later Klavierstücke), but Rihm suddenly interrupts with a passage using various extended techniques, many inside the instrument, which provide an obvious theatrical as well as sonic dimension, to create a bewildering yet integrated piece that bears a little resemblance to some of the music-theatrical work of Dieter Schnebel or Hans-Joachim Hespos. (I.P.)

Klavierstück Nr. 4 (1974)

Klavierstuck 4 is in some ways the most obviously accessible of the seven pieces. It is in a type of modified rondo form, in which the first (A) episode is followed by three contrasting sections that grow out of the earlier material, then (A) is heard again in full, this time fff throughout, followed by two 'Variations', then finally the opening episode once more in a slightly truncated form. The ghostly taps in periodic rhythms at the lower part of the keyboard, the martellato repetitions elsewhere, the luminous processions of slow chords, the wispy, ethereal secco writing in the upper registers, the strange repetitions with decreasing tempi, winding down; all these qualities combine to give the music a pronounced sense of the fantastical and macabre that can be most Schumann-esque. (I.P.)

For notes about pieces 5-7 by Wolfgang Rihm and Rudolf Frisius contact Ian Pace himself.
Bernhard Wambach's CD with Klavierstücke 7,5,4,2,1 is newly released, 1. Juli 2003, on KAIROS 0012372KAI


© Peter Grahame Woolf