Rihm’s Music for Cello

WER7402-2 cover

RIHM: String Trios Nos. 2 & 9. Grat for Solo Cello. Von Weit for Cello & Piano. Duomonolog for Violin and Cello / Friedrich Gauwerky, cel; Alexandra Greffin-Klein, vln; Axel Porath, vla; Florian Uhlig, pno / Wergo WER 7402-2

Wolfgang Rihm is one of those modern German composers who still uses the 12-tone style of Schoenberg but not always the 12-tone row. This new Wergo release presents several works involving the cello, including two of his string trios, the earlier one presented here (No. 2) written when he was only 17 years old.

It is clearly a well-crafted piece, lasting all of four minutes, but so derivative of Schoenberg that it really doesn’t have any individuality. Far more interesting is the solo cello piece Grat (Edge), written three years later. Here, Rihm abandoned the strict dodecaphonic style of his predecessors; though the music is still atonal, it is much more fluid in structure and has much more feeling in it, although there are indeed passages that will severely challenge the casual listener. As stated in the notes, “The solo part moves permanently from one extreme to another: from the softest to the loudest dynamic levels, from static sounds to sudden convulsions, from the lowest to the highest registers. Gentle pizzicati are followed by explosive Bartók pizzicati (sffffz).” Parts of it I liked very much—there’s even a certain playfulness in some passages; parts of it I didn’t, but it was clearly an advance on his earlier work.

Better yet is Von Weit for Cello & Piano from 1993. Here, although the music is neither melodic nor lovely, Rihm was working within a primarily tonal base. Its most fascinating aspect is its constantly soft profile; the cello always has the mute on its strings and the pianist always has the soft pedal down, creating a strange, other-worldly sound. This piece I liked tremendously; it created a feeling of something mysterious in the distance despite a few notes struck and played louder than the others. Here, too, Rihm created a more legato feeling, which enhances its mystery.

Rihm also hit upon some excellent musical ideas in his Duomonolog for violin and cello (1986-88). Here, there is even a legato flow to the music missing in the previous pieces, and he used the old Baroque practice of creating the illusion of a duet by using quick register changes, but in a modern manner. The music here has no firm tonal base but is not altogether atonal, just, you might say, “non-tonal.” I give Rihm a great deal of credit for having more than one “voice” as a composer; despite some similarities, none of these first four pieces really sound like any of the other ones. Indeed, the one thing that links Grat, Von Weit and Duomonolog is his penchant for creating music with an interesting ambience while still retaining a core substance of cohesive musical materials.

Although the String Trio No. 9 dates from 1971, only two years after No. 2, it is quite different, already moving away from a strict application of the 12-tone row. As the notes tell us, it is comprised of Classical, Romantic, Expressionistic and Avant-Garde elements, sounding like “the protocol of a multi-polar personality disorder.” There are also, to my ears, a few touches of humor in this piece, as if Rihm was trying to let the listener know that it wasn’t all serious.

In all of these works, the elderly cellist Friedrich Gauwerky plays with the energy of a 30-year-old, attacking this music with both intelligence and energy. It’s clearly not music for all tastes, but I definitely feel it’s worth a listen.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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