Earlier this week it was announced that the recipient of the 2015 Grawemeyer Award for music composition is Wolfgang Rihm, for his 16-minute orchestral work IN-SCHRIFT-II. Whatever people may say about Rihm (and, in more recent times, who hasn’t?), it was a superb decision, as this particular piece has considerable ambition in terms of both sound itself as well as the way it speaks within the performance space. Rihm is hardly the only contemporary composer to have these concerns, of course, but IN-SCHRIFT-II, despite or perhaps because of its brevity, makes an overwhelmingly immediate and deep impression that genuinely sets it apart from what one usually encounters in new music. And yet, to dance on the head of a paradox for a moment, you could easily argue that there’s not that much new about it—it certainly doesn’t break new ground, but at the same time it doesn’t really sound like anyone else, and in fact pretty much nothing about it at all sounds familiar. Rihm’s soundworld is remarkably immersive and attractive, non-threatening but nonetheless thrilling and in no small part that’s down to the very specific choices of instrumentation he has made, with heavy stress placed on lower instruments.
IN-SCHRIFT-II was commissioned for a gala concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Berliner Philharmonie concert hall, and with that primary emphasis on a musical space, Rihm returned to a concept he’d explored over a decade earlier in the first IN-SCHRIFT, composed in 1995 for a performance at St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. That work featured a heavily bedarkened orchestra—sans upper strings and with six trombones (four regular, two contrabass) plus a contrabass tuba; IN-SCHRIFT-II also eschews violins and violas, and a solitary alto represents the flute family, but it includes no fewer than six clarinets in A (along with three bongo players, dispersed around the auditorium), six bassoons (four regular, two contra), four trombones and two bass tubas. Once again, an orchestra on a decidedly downward tilt.
This is not, though, a work solely or even foremost concerned with atmospherics; emerging out of the opening clarinet fug comes a cor anglais closely followed by an oboe, together loudly and demonstratively placing melody in the foreground. Having said that, it’s perhaps unhelpful to speak in terms of a front-back perspective, as what the work projects most is a contrast between high and low, the melodic thrust in the woodwinds draped in shadow by the rest of the orchestra while, far beneath, there’s a strange and ominous sense of movement in the depths, which—reinforced by pizzicato accents—causes the winds to become briefly motionless. They continue, but a new melody emerges in the horns, slowly and with a palpable sense of menace, the start of an extremely gradual tensing of Rihm’s material, like a building-up of pressure, causing the winds to fragment into parallel strands. In a sign of things to come, all the bassoons let out an unexpected massive crescendo (an amazing sound), leading to a mesmerising episode of stately two-part counterpoint between all six clarinets and the horns, trombones and bassoons. The brass act both to disrupt the building tension as well as to expel it, unleashing huge blunt outbursts, their respective wakes filled with a gorgeous sense of daze and (by sheer contrast) an infinitesimal kind of intimacy in the woodwinds, almost as though they were licking their wounds. This seems climactic, but what follows next proves otherwise; the winds now rising over an insistent drum, an uncanny accent surrounded by growls and glitter, and thence to an even more brutal blowout. This triggers momentum throughout the orchestra in overlapping rhythmic cells, ratcheting things up again only to loose them immediately via huge brass pedal notes. It falls to the clarinets to provide the work’s somewhat knackered epilogue, a sturdy final statement of melodic intent over a static horn chord.
The world première was given by the Berlin Philharmonic directed by Simon Rattle, at the Philharmonie’s 50th Anniversary Gala concert in October 2013. Although the broadcast somewhat neutralises Rihm’s spatialisation of the six clarinets, they make a very striking impression regardless, particularly their agility—in unison!—during that closing stretch of melody. And as you’d expect, the orchestra as a whole sounds ravishingly wonderful.