Dreamscapes at the Edge of the Abyss
Rihm, Ligeti, Mahler and the Enchantment of a Small Orchestra
Three frequently performed, admired composers brought into close proximity. The classic musical set menu: a brief orchestral piece as starter, the obligatory solo concerto before the interval; and as pièce de résistance, a major symphony. Just what you’d expect? Not quite. Each work being performed today fulfils its traditional function in the concert programme – yet, at the same time, thwarts it pointedly and thoroughly. An external indicator of this distance from convention is intentionally reduced orchestral forces: in all three cases, transparency takes precedence over opulence, specific atmosphere over physical power.
Transcending the original commission: Wolfgang Rihm’s Gruss-Moment 2
Wolfgang Rihm’s Gruss [Greeting]-Moment 2 – in memoriam Pierre Boulez, receiving its world premiere in these performances, goes beyond Sir Simon Rattle’s original commission. Sir Simon had requested short musical appetizers. A total of twelve composers accepted the conductor’s carte blanche and will deliver small orchestral “album leaves” by the summer of 2018. Rihm had already, in 2015, composed a five-minute orchestral piece for Boulez’s 90th birthday to a commission from the Lucerne Festival. In that Gruss-Moment 1, formulations of intimate lyricism are perforated by hard blasts of massed brass and percussion. For the second Gruss-Moment, Rihm has also carefully chosen his colours: dispensing with clarinets, bassoons (except for contrabassoon) and trumpets, he has opted for quadruple flutes, horns and timpani, as well as single oboe, cor anglais (English horn) and trombone. The “drama” of the piece is thus predetermined. It begins with a solo on the cor anglais, that instrument of lamenting and loneliness, giving out an unaccompanied line filled with big leaps and abrupt dynamic contrasts. Soothing horn and string phrases answer it. In the second run-up, the disrupted line is taken over by the solo oboe, now joined by an expressive trombone that quickly strides across a compass of nearly three octaves. The flute choir reacts with fierce cries. A characteristic long-short rhythm emerges and soon becomes a driving force. The contrasting layers interpenetrate, with the flutes and strings finally taking up the impassioned gesture in unison. This development leads to a brief, vehement climax. The ending is given over to pacified solos on wind and softly rumbling timpani.
Irritating the conventional sensation of hearing: György Ligeti’s Violin Concerto
György Ligeti’s Violin Concerto irritates the conventional sensation of hearing in multiple ways. A violinist and a viola player from the string section tune their instruments to an overtone of the double bass, making the violin a shade higher, the viola a bit lower than the rest of the ensemble and the solo violin. The resulting “glassy, shimmering quality of the movement”, to which Ligeti’s score indication refers, is increasingly disturbed by irregular accents until the irregularly hammering rhythms gain the upper hand altogether. The second movement is a series of variations on a theme that Ligeti took from his Bagatelles for wind quintet (1953). The melody, Baroque in aspects, is played first on the G string of the solo violin and then subjected to ingenious variations. Complexity and feigned naïvety are combined in unusual fashion: four of the woodwind double on ocarina, whose intonation varies considerably according to how hard the players blow, while the two percussionists play slide whistles, among many other instruments, and the horns use natural tuning in two movements.
In the Intermezzo, which plays for just over two minutes, a flowing motion gradually swells to become a raging cataract. The languorous violin melody is accompanied by chromatically rising runs on divided strings, which proliferate until the solo part is enveloped and, finally, submerged altogether. Ligeti’s conception of a glassy dreamscape can most readily be connected with the pp beginning of the Passacaglia fourth movement. But even here is an undertow of disaster: loud, sharp dissonances are heard above the percussion rolls then suddenly break off. In the last movement, Ligeti quotes the descending lamenting line that runs through his late works like a pessimistic leitmotif. The movement unfolds as a sequence of the most contrasted images imaginable (musicologist Constantin Floros). As precisely as they seem to have been arranged, they scarcely are beholden to any strict structural principle. At the end comes a solo cadenza, which can be freely fashioned on the basis of all five movements.
Disconcertingly enigmatic humour: Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony
There is an illuminating connection between Ligeti’s Violin Concerto and Mahler’s Fourth – the symphony also walks a fine line between cheeriness and near-death. Mahler realized that “only a very few will comprehend” his humour. In fact, the world of childhood in the Fourth does initially seem out of place in the context of a large symphony: it begins with the ingenuous sounds of sleighbells, perky woodwind passages and a graceful violin theme. Mahler compensates for the radically reduced scoring with writing of chamber-musical flexibility and an unprecedented wealth of colours.Of central importance for the symphony as a whole is a new theme presented by the four flutes at the beginning of the development section which directly anticipates the fourth movement. This finale – the Wunderhorn song Das himmlische Leben (“Life in Heaven”) – begins with the line “Wir geniessen die himmlischen Freuden” (“We revel in heavenly pleasures”). But just what sorts of pleasures are meant? The composer never provided a programme for the Fourth Symphony, but his verbal statements suggest an interpretation of its internal progression as a “dreamlike journey up to the blissful fields of heaven”, as Paul Bekker proposed in his 1921 monograph. This journey first leads through the “landscapes of this ‘world as eternal now’” to Friend Hein (Death), who, however, is here “conceived in the friendly legendary sense” of enticing leader. The idea of tuning the solo violin a tone higher to suggest “Death striking up a tune on his fiddle” apparently first came to Mahler when he was already at work on the scherzo. In the G major slow movement, a set of double variations, Bekker refers to “a new world expanding ever more broadly and clearly in front of the new arrivals, who ascend, so to speak, through a series of metamorphoses”.
Shortly before the end of the movement comes the surprise: in an erupting chord played by the full orchestra, the music turns directly towards E major. Four horns reveal the main theme of the song about “life in Heaven” while the trumpets chime in with the naïve motif that the four flutes had introduced in the first movement. Delicate lines above magically shimmering chords lead to the vision of Cockaigne, a paradise in which the finest delicacies are served and the most beautiful music is heard. Meanwhile the atrocities of earthly life proliferate ever more grotesquely: John the Baptist lets the little lamb out to be slaughtered; St. Luke sacrifices the ox, his own symbol. And dancing to the music are the 11,000 virgins supposedly martyred along with St. Ursula of Cologne. The contradiction between the bucolic cheerfulness of the vocal stanzas and the vehemence of the orchestral interludes that separate them is never reconciled. Mahler’s humour here contains something unsettling and cryptic. It is a form of humour, as the composer himself once remarked in connection with his Third, that “has to aim at heights of expression where all other means fall short”. Irony, high spirits, laughter: these would take the place once intended for faith. They served as substitute for a transcendence that would otherwise hardly be attainable.