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Rolf RIEHM (b. 1937)
1.Aprikosenbäume gibt es, aprikosenbäume gibt es (2004) [29:27]
2. Ahi bocca, ahi lingua (1991/1994) [16:15]
3. Schlaf, schlaf, John Donne... (1997) [19:20]
Theo Nabicht (bass clarinet); Ensemble Ascolta (1); Hilliard Ensemble (2); Ensemble Recherche (3).
rec. Kleine Sendesaal des WDR, Köln, 19, 21 December 2006 (1), and 24 April 1994 (2). Experimentalstudio Freiburg, 26 March 1998 (3).
CYBELE SACD 860.701 [65:04]
Experience Classicsonline


Rolf Riehm probably won’t be a particularly familiar name to many, and his position outside the ‘mainstream’ of contemporary music today may be accounted for by to his uncompromising atonal stance as a composer. Recognised as a force within the Frankfurt School, Riehm also formed the ‘Gruppe 8 Köln’ with like-minded colleagues from the Rhineland such as Hans Ulrich Humpert, Manfred Niehaus and others.

The booklet notes for this release open with a quote, “Art at its outermost reaches does not concern itself with any obligations or solutions.” This is taken to mean a viewpoint of suspicion when regarding or confining music to a ‘personal style’: “I find the development of a so-called individual, artistic language to be rather boring.” I can go a long way with this latter statement, although it can provide an excuse for rampant eclecticism and dismisses great swathes of composers whose instantly recognisable personal language can be a major hallmark on their best work. The first statement is rather self-evident: art of any kind concerns itself with neither obligations or solutions – at the purest level these are surely the expectations imposed upon it by its audience. At the other extreme there is of course much music which panders to trends and popular culture, though this ironically has an equal sense of anonymity when it comes to identifying ‘personal style’ in that of the composer. I can see what he is getting at however, and disgruntled listeners are free to read his opinions as a composer’s disclaimer when it comes to engaging with the public, or with a certain kind of public’s demands or expectations.

Aprikosenbäume gibt es, aprikosenbäume gibt es translates as ‘There are apricot trees, there are apricot trees, the opening word of Danish poet Inger Christensen’s 1981 cycle “alfabet”. The poetry is an interaction of words and mathematical structures, using the Fibonacci series to connect with the letters of the alphabet. Riehm’s piece opens with the first strophe of this work, but the role of ‘narrator’ is taken on by the contrabass clarinet, which has a long solo at the beginning and a significant role throughout. Solo violin, cello, trumpet, trombone and some recorded sounds creates a rather bare, unyielding, patchwork sound landscape through which the listener is brought.

Without knowing the poem it is difficult to connect the music to literary meaning, but Riehm’s piece is not intended as a programmatic narrative. The listener is invited to engage in ‘leaps of the imagination’ to which you may or may not respond. The piece itself leaps in at least one improbable direction, with an entire section referring to a painting, ‘Dans mes rêves je t’adore’ by Berlin artist Bernhard Martin, which depicts a daydream of a housewife with her vacuum cleaner – the object of her desire being a naked man diving into water. Riehm makes no secret of the lack of line or ‘classical’ interaction of ideas in this and other works: “The soul doesn’t feel things out of order, but instead in a criss-cross manner, in many speeds, all at once.”

Ahi bocca, ahi lingua is for four vocalists, in this case the incomparable Hilliard Ensemble. The title comes from a madrigal, “Si, ch’io vorrei morire” (“Yes, I wish to die”) by Claudio Monteverdi. The actual text for the piece comes from a work by Rainald Goetz, but in the end it is the composer’s treatment of the sounds of words and their relationship to the punctuation and spaces between the words which carries the expressive weight of the piece. This is accurately described as ‘a means of articulating another notion of time, that of postponement.’ The voices undulate and jab chords in some startling contrasts toward the beginning, and there is a fascinating extended pianissimo section, where endless lines move among each other in a kind of timeless, horizontal ‘endless column’. While this music is by no means ‘easy’, the familiarity of the Hilliard’s sonorities, or maybe just those of the human voice rather than the more enigmatic instruments of Aprikosenbäume, make this into a more directly communicative work. Even when there is no perceptible meaning in much of the sounds articulated, there is a greater sense of intervallic progression and more of feel of flow in the temporal space occupied by the piece. Serious atonal barbershop, the Hilliard’s virtuoso performance is certainly one which can be highly valued.

Schlaf, schlaf, John Donne, schlaf tief und quäl dich nicht (“Sleep, sleep John Donne, sleep well and trouble yourself not) is written for violin, bass clarinet, accordion and keyboard. The vocal element in the piece is sampled into the electronics, but although the text of the title forms a kind of phonetic backbone to the piece the meaning of the words is said to have no effect on the development of the music, the ‘sleep’ associations are sometimes impossible to ignore. This is a piece in which the symbolic conceptual layers of ‘meaning’ in the media used are almost as important as the music itself. The ear is drawn towards a singing voice which is not a singing voice, just a ‘frozen’ and artificial set of digital instructions on a keyboard sound-sample: the text, already shorn of all context, is further divorced from any real association with the content of the work. At times, there are words extended like the stream of sand in an endless egg-timer, notes and vocal sounds are sometimes cast like lost gravel bouncing over the unstable trampoline of a non-foundation, and sometimes interrupted by doom-laden disco-dungeon electronic drum-beats which shake out any thoughts of sleep you may have been having. The more intensely structured moments of composition and instrumental playing poke through like surrealist mountain peaks as a result. Riehm’s own comment, one which the booklet text author Michael Rebhahn suggests could apply to the composer’s entire output, sums this up: “One can no longer decipher clarity; there is no ‘line’. The case is simply that everything is used for a very long time, and this is stronger than any deliberate conceptual intention.”

This is the kind of music which can repel, infuriate, fascinate and stimulate all at the same time. The music may give you a headache, but after having heard it you may find it following you around like polystyrene pellets in a swimming pool. You may not want to see these at first, but in the end you become fascinated by how they can reveal eddies and subtle flows in the seemingly random turbulences of water. This, as well as Cybele’s excellent recording of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Requiem für einen jungen Dichter have both won the "Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik" (Award of the German Record Critics) 2009, and the level of engineering and standard of performance mean that both are very well deserved.

Dominy Clements


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