Rolf RIEHM (b. 1937)
Die Tränen des Gletschers (1998)a [20:43]
Nuages immortels (2001)a [22:00]
Berceuse (1984/5)b [19:38]
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Hans Zendera ; Michael Gielen, Carmen-Maria Cârneci, Tobias Wahrenb
rec. Hans-Rosbaud-Studio, Baden-Baden, 13 October 1998 (Die Tränen), 27 March 2007 (Nuages immortels) and 14 October 1989 (Berceuse)
TELOS MUSIC TLS 128 [62:42]

Although Rolf Riehm’s name was familiar to me, I had never heard a single note of his music so far, which is enough to make this release most welcome.

The three works here span some fifteen years of his composing life and thus shed some light on his compositional thinking.

The insert notes by Frank Hilberg mention that part of the idea for composing Die Tränen des Gletschers (“The Tears of the Glacier”) came when the composer was flying home from Tokyo over the icy Siberian tundra, something I myself experienced a few years ago. This is a fairly substantial work falling into some fourteen sections - some of them quite short - played continuously. The work opens with an arresting gesture comprising massive blocks opposing low and high orchestral registers, a seemingly recurring feature in his late orchestral music. After this mighty opening there is an attempt at “a grandiose melody” which quickly dissolves into a solitary cello line. This is followed by a two-part harmony leading into the “whip aria”. “A glacier does not cry, just as a whip cannot sing” (the composer’s words). There follows a rather solemn episode (“Brass Melisma”) somewhat reminiscent of the opening. This leads into another episode for trombones. A chord sequence then leads into another “whip sequence” followed by a somewhat capricious section for strings and winds punctuated by brass chords. The next section for percussion leads into “Wall” – short, massive and awe-inspiring. The work ends with an ‘Abgesang’, again a varied restatement of the opening eventually dissolving into thin air by way of an isolated note played by the clarinet. Although it is strongly varied, the music is nevertheless held together by several recurring elements that tend to reinforce the apparent lack of a straight narration.

The very title of the next work Nuages immortels oder Focusing on Solos (Medea in Avignon) may give some idea of Riehm’s sometimes quirky thinking. The title actually refers to three ideas that have influenced the writing of the piece. “Focusing on Solos” was apparently part of the initial project and was designed as a series of “micro-concertos” in which various soloists from the orchestra might display their virtuosity. The implication of “Nuages immortels” is somewhat more obscure since reference is made to an old LP recorded by the Spanish ensemble Atrium Musicae de Madrid attempting to recreate ancient Greek music. “Medea in Avignon” tells yet another story: a chance viewing of the French actress Isabelle Huppert playing Medea in Avignon in 2000. There is a fourth idea: “Depraved Settings” which, we are told, results from the composer’s experience with “talk-shows, Germany’s-got-talent-style superstar castings”. Now what are we to do with these rather disparate elements? The most evident section is the one “Focusing on Solos” in which the solo violin tends to dominate. The work as a whole is probably best perceived as a huge kaleidoscope in which the various elements oppose, overlap and – at times – coalesce without any real narrative thread. The scoring has much in common with that of Die Tränen des Gletschers characterised by massive brass chords, opposing registers and quite often arresting orchestral gestures.

The earliest piece here Berceuse obviously and audibly belongs to another period of Riehm’s work. Its very title is – as far as I am concerned – a misnomer, if ever there was one. Although it opens in a deceptively calm way, the music is soon interrupted by aggressive outbursts suggesting nightmarish visions rather than an attempt at lulling a child to sleep – unless, that is, you tell him or her some horrendous stories in the vain hope of getting him or her off to sleep. The music throughout is rather fragmentary and unfolds in often unrelated layers. That’s probably why the score calls for three conductors. On the whole this is a much more complex work than any of the other two in this release, no matter how idiosyncratic Riehm’s writing may be. I find it rather less interesting and involving than either Die Tränen des Gletschers or Nuages immortels.

I do not think that these performances can be faulted and the recording is really very fine and perfectly suited to the wide dynamic range. This is a release likely to appeal to all those who want to broaden their approach of contemporary German music. Riehm’s music may not be easy but Die Tränen des Gletschers and Nuages immortels are substantial orchestral scores that certainly deserve to be better known.

Hubert Culot

Riehm’s idiosyncratic orchestral music in fine performances and a very nice recording.