Wolfgang Rihm: ET LUX (ECM New Series 2404)

Et Lux

Wolfgang Rihm

Huelgas Ensemble
Minguet Quartett
Paul Van Nevel director
Recorded February 2014, Augustinus Muziekcentrum, Antwerpen
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Mixed January 2015 in Lugano by Markus Heiland and Manfred Eicher
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: 2 June 2015

ET LUX is an hour-long composition for vocal ensemble and string quartet (2009) by Wolfgang Rihm that situates fragments of the Latin Requiem Mass in cells of sustained chords and spectral wanderlust. Although originally written with the Hilliard Ensemble and Arditti Quartet in mind, the performance here is in more than capable hands. The Minguet Quartett, approved interpreters of the composer’s string quartets, and the Huelgas Ensemble (which doubles the scored voices to eight) illuminate every fiber of this tapestry like sunlight through a castle window.

For a composer so prolific (with over 400 works to his name), it’s only natural that again Rihm should cast once glance backward for every two forward, ending up suspended somewhere between the poles of question and answer, and proving them to be the event horizons of an arbitrary dichotomy. It is music that neither invites nor rejects, but places the listener (and composer) in a space where choices are the only true materiality. Hence the cellular nature of the piece, in which selective phrases serve as requiems unto themselves.

As Paul Griffiths observes in the album’s liner text, “What we have here is not music remembered but music remembering.” Attribution of such sentience to notes on a page is no metaphorical trick. It speaks, on the surface, to the music’s body of antiquity and clothing of modernity, and beyond that to their entanglement among the bramble of performance and the flourishing of listening. In the manner of Alexander Knaifel, the instruments sing as much as the human voices. This, of course, requires a human touch. Still, the inner life of ET LUX is not provided but enhanced by that touch.

The keyword, in both the writing and the playing, is “tactile,” as if both forces were bound by flesh and spirit alike. The quartet breathes, close to silence yet pregnant with words all the same, bringing its own voices to bear upon the passage of time. Each instrument must treat the space as it is treated: as an element of malformed crystal, whose light exists only for as long as it is uttered to be. The effect is such that, even when punctuating the darkness with spikes of pizzicato flash, harmonies merely disperse and regroup, taking on semblance of something newborn.

An astonishing amount of variety pervades a work so slow-moving yet which bypasses pathos toward the development of deep, if sometimes tense, relationships. Moments approaching beauty are inevitably peeled away from expectation, leaving us to reckon with a more true-to-life distortion of textual fantasy. Instead of treating the Mass as a poem or liturgical given, it retraces shards of it until each is self-reckoning. The mystery of faith becomes a reflection of itself.

As the piece goes on, the dynamic between voices and strings becomes mutually divergent, at once developing inward and outward. A prayerful mode gives way to fire, and further to snowy textures. Pulses emerge, morph, and overlap, but disclose little of their intentions. The clearest answer, then, is in the dark, sublime ending; a movement into new beginning, but in which direction is left open to interpretation.

Ensemble Belcanto: Come un’ombra di luna (ECM New Series 1739)

Come un’ombra di luna

Ensemble Belcanto
Dietburg Spohr mezzosoprano, director
Birgitta Zehetner mezzosoprano
Andrea Baader soprano
Rita Huber soprano
Dzuna Kalnina alto
Rica Rauch alto
Recorded January 2000 at Festeburgkirche, Frankfurt am Main
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

I have at home a blue piano
and yet know no note.
–Else Lasker-Schüler

My first encounter with Ensemble Belcanto was on an extraordinary recording of Klaus Hinrich Stahmer’s Hommage à Daidalos on the ProViva label, which combined Belcanto’s rich voices with the sound sculptures of Elmar Daucher (whose resonating stones also found their way into ECM via Stephan Micus’s The Music Of Stones). The ensemble was formed in 1986 by mezzo-soprano Dietburg Spohr as a springboard for new music activity and has since honed its skills in a variety of percussion instruments. The ensemble’s depth of performance is clearly seen in Haim Alexander’s Mein Blaues Klavier (1989-90), a setting of four poems by Else Lasker-Schüler. Although the piece inhabits a tight chromatic range that steps just beyond one octave, the singers manage to expand its borders through a wealth of gingerly applied drums, gongs, triangles, and other accentuating paraphernalia. The ritualistic arrangements lend the voices a flavor of incantation, each word seeming to bring about a discernible change in the music’s countenance. Mein Blaues Klavier is severely analytical without being clinical, especially in its final section, in which repetitive clangs probe deeper into self-inflicted wounds.

This is followed by two a cappella settings. The first, Konrad Boehmer’s Un Monde Abandonné Des Facteurs (1996), is a wavering slog through its text. The composer’s Darmstadt School roots are on full display, voices bristling with his teacher Stockhausen’s same penchant for the instability of the utterance. The 1997 title composition comes from Fabrizio Casti. His is a haunting weave of darkness and light that burns like the calls of sirens in one’s head.

We close with Wolfgang Rihm’s Séraphin – Stimmen (1996), a magnificent cartographical exploration of wordless territories. It is the most minimal piece on the album, and all the deeper for it. Rihm’s use of percussion is most adept, and seems to be directly influenced by Noh theatre, where a single wood clap can accentuate an emphatic syllable, and where the beat of a drum can synchronize an action or gesture, infusing it with intense programmatic effect. Also like Noh, the piece makes the most of silence and its implied sense of movement. And in fact, the entire album has the feeling of something staged, inhaling and exhaling through its dramaturgy.

While every voice here is superb, Spohr’s stands out for its technical breadth and for possessing one of the most engaging vibratos I have ever heard. The ensemble as a whole shapes every syllable with strict attention, elongating certain syllables and severely shortening others. Such textual detail is always such a pleasure to hear, for rather than trying to fit a text into a predetermined musical structure, Spohr and her companions adapt their sound to emergent vocal surroundings. Again, this speaks to an explicit root in drama, for ultimately these pieces are like plays of the mind, populated by characters of one’s own making.