Wolfgang RIHM (b. 1952) Et Lux (2009) [61:32]
Huelgas Ensemble/Paul van Nevel
rec. 2014, Augustinus Muziekcentrum, Antwerp. ECM NEW SERIES 2404 [61:32]
Originally written for the Hilliard Ensemble and Arditti Quartet, Wolfgang Rihm’s Et Lux is one of those fascinating works in which very little seems to be going on, but the closer you listen the more you discover. Scored for string quartet and four-part voices, the eight voices of the Huelgas Ensemble means a doubling of the vocal parts which creates a more choral sound, but doesn’t further affect the nature of the composition. It is a version approved of by Rihm. This is music which functions within colours and shifting tonal layers rather than in extremes of sonority or even for the most part of dynamic range, though there are some bruising shocks along the way. From the outset we are confronted with a meeting of ancient and modern music, the distortions of each flowing in two directions. Antique vocal harmonies emerge and are diffused, while the slow flow in the opening minutes means that angular gestures are held in check.
More extreme material emerges from around 16 minutes in, but even the more urgent rates of change and contrast this introduces always and inevitably return to a kind liturgical introversion. Rihm’s own statement in the booklet refers to “text fragments from the Roman requiem liturgy… [for example] ‘… et lux perpetua luceat …’ Through circling reflection the comforting yet deeply disturbing meaning of these words might just become perceptible.” Alluded to in an interview which can be found on YouTube, Rihm describes an approach when writing that included memories of his youth when, as a choral singer, he encountered much of the classical and romantic repertoire. These texts and musical fragments infuse Et Lux in a work which is “not a requiem by someone who knows what a requiem is about…”, rather something filtered through the memories of an amanuensis or someone recalling analyses from long ago.
Alas, for the most part Paul Griffiths’ booklet notes for this release go onto my ‘pseuds’ pile of nonsensically poetic prose. I appreciate this is his personal response to a beautiful score, but surely we don’t all need to share reams of stuff like “… the voices and the words will return, and sound as they did before, which can never be as they did before. The voices may go silent, to leave only the sopranos, or only the tenors and basses, or no-one at all but the strings, which may try to maintain the not-prayer, and fail, or they may question one another, there being no-one else to question …” and so on ad nauseam. There is a different German text from Wolfgang Schreiber which seems more to the point. Griffiths’ remarks on memory approach useful relevance, but he ends up undermining his own point by going a step or two too far: “What Rihm presents is not a reproduction or an imitation, not a retrieval but the process of retrieving, the process of remembering. Music is remembering itself, trying to remember itself, trying to remember how it was, which it does not now know, but can only try to remember.”
This is indeed music which uses resonances from the past, and these ‘memories’ of choral tonality emerge and are incorporated into the atmosphere of the whole – sometimes in direct expressive contrast to emphatically ‘modern’ elements, equally as often rising to meet the wider pallet, both tonally and dynamically, of Rihm’s contemporary idiom. The ‘memory’ of ancient music becomes integrated as part of the whole – an added dimension, but ultimately just one part of this extended musical landscape. The alchemy of Et Lux is in part this uniting of the old and the new, but in the end this is only a side-effect of seeking to express something timeless in a human context. The power of the work is in its sustained delivery of something constantly evolving and changing while remaining static and elemental. Extract a chunk of the piece and listen blind, and I doubt you would be able accurately to point it out as from a beginning, and end, or anything developmental or transitional. This is where the magic is created, as our minds are constantly kept guessing, while constantly being rewarded by fragments of things almost recognisable, or nearly beautiful. There are many striking moments, but everything is fleeting and nothing is allowed to exist for more than a couple of seconds before the next event takes over. This is by no means a shapeless work but there is no point of focus other than of Et Lux itself, nor is there any real climax to be achieved and retreated from, unless this is the sublime apotheosis in the final few minutes. There are sections which recur and return, so our own memories are fertilized through inner recollection and a dimly perceived sense of structure. The whole is eminently satisfying in that melancholic sense which takes you on an inner journey and makes you reflect on all of those Big Questions.
As proven by the booklet, in the end none of this is easily expressed in words so, as ever, have a listen and see what you think. The performance is excellent and the recording equally so – not too swampily resonant, but with an appropriately ecclesiastical environment helping to enhance this piece’s special aura.