S&H Festival Review

Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music 2000 (JW)

One of the keenest disappointments this year was my inability to attend the Huddersfield Festival, owing to family illness. However, the four programmes from the Festival in the BBC's Hear and Now provided considerable compensation, especially as they concentrated on the German weekend - the most important component of this year's event.

The German weekend concentrated on three composers who have been featured in previous Huddersfield Festivals. They represent some of the most important trends in contemporary music, compositionally and aesthetically, but in terms of the entire German-speaking area, their output covers a comparatively narrow spectrum.

Besides their obvious friendship and mutual admiration for each other's achievement, the feature uniting Wolfgang Rihm and Helmut Lachenmann, which occasionally distinguishes them from their younger colleagues, is their respect for the 'classical' and 'modernist' traditions. Together with York Hoeller, they were influenced by Stockhausen, but of greater significance for Lachenmann and Rihm was the influence of Luigi Nono, possibly prefiguring his gradual emergence as the foremost member of the postwar generation.

A major distinction between Lachenmann and Rihm is that they were influenced, respectively, by Nono's early and late work. Another, mentioned in the first broadcast, is that whereas Rihm puts everything into his music, Lachenmann takes everything out of his. This is a simplification, but it is a useful rule of thumb, not least because it can be related to their preoccupation with Nono. While Lachenmann's aesthetic was forged from the teachings of Nono in the late 1950s, in which the concept of integral serialism was combined with socio-political ideas, Rihm adopted a much freer approach, influenced by Nono's less dogmatic later works, and emphasising the importance of intuition. Accordingly, Rihm has avoided both compositional theory, and any form of ideology.

The differences were already apparent in the discussion chaired by Richard Steinitz, extracts of which were broadcast on Hear and Now. Whereas Lachenmann aims to create a context in which individual gestures are devoid of expressive associations or symbolism, Rihm accepts any connotations which may arise as a means of establishing links with our cultural heritage. At the same time, he avoids composing in accordance with a pre-conceived plan, or law, in order that the music can capture the essence of things.

An initial encounter with the works performed by the BBCSO, conducted by Jac Van Steen, might suggest that Rihm is a more traditional composer than Lachenmann. In Ausklang, where the soloist was Ueli Wiget, Lachenmann succeeds in creating a new relationship between piano and orchestra, so that the latter functions as an extension of the piano's resonances, and he ensures that the gestures of the 19th-century concerto are understood in a new way. Yet the underlying structure of Ausklang is still perceived in terms of a 'classical' or 'romantic' concerto, and it would be salutary to hear the work in close conjunction with either of the Brahms concertos, particularly the second.

By contrast, Rihm, in Vers une Symphonie Fleuve IV, creates an open-ended structure, capable of generating material in a manner analogous to a numerical sequence which never reaches infinity. It aspires to, but never attains the status of 'symphony', and because it is based on an entirely different concept, Rihm is unconcerned that certain episodes might be considered redolent of Sibelius.

A similar comparison could be made between Rihm's Schumann-inspired Fremde Szenen I, Ii, Iii, for piano trio - not broadcast - and Lachenmann's Allegro Sostenuto, for clarinet, cello and piano. This instrumental group has its counterpart in trios by Beethoven and Brahms, but its comparative rarity has enabled Lachenmann to discover new musical landscapes. The individual instrumentalists are not called upon to use unusual playing techniques, but as in Ausklang, sustained resonances are combined and contrasted with elements of linear movement. As the emphasis is on timbre, based on the way the instruments interact, the overall form has little connection with the 'classical' trio.

Zwei Gefuehle, Musik mit Leonardo, presents a more dramatic, and more recent aspect of Lachenmann's oeuvre. It was written at a time when the composer was contemplating his opera, based on H. C. Andersen's The Little Matchgirl, and the text, expressing both the fear and desire to leap into the unknown, was clearly apposite. Lachenmann responded with a dark and brooding score. In Huddersfield, the two speakers from Ensemble Modern were possibly less rhetorical than the composer's interpretation, but the work made a powerful impact.

Although complete in itself, Zwei Gefuehle was subsequently incorporated into Lachenmann's opera and, though purely instrumental, Rihm's Jagden und Formen adopts similar principles. In this case, however, material is built around the pre-existing pieces to the point where their identity is substantially reduced. The work represents Rihm's second project in pursuit of a formal concept, but it differs from the Symphonie Fleuve cycle in that it is a single entity, rather than a cycle. Moreover, the structure is not open-ended in the same way and the material is not developed symphonically. The beginning and conclusion are fixed, but Rihm has identified three further places where new material could be introduced.

In keeping with the notion of pursuing a form, Jagden und Formen is notable for its considerable velocity. However, this is sometimes deceptive, as the music is based on slow-moving harmonies. On the other hand, there are also times when the harmony changes with genuine rapidity, and as a result, the style falls somewhere between Boulez and Donatoni. At present, Jagden und Formen comprises 45 minutes of sustained virtuosity for Ensemble Modern, with the prospect of more to come.

In the last broadcast from this year's Huddersfield Festival, Wolfgang Rihm suggested that his piano piece, Nachstudie had certain affinities with Lachenmann's Serynade. They are almost identical in terms of duration; both exploit the piano's resonating potential, but Nachstudie is a reduction of Sphere, for solo piano, wind instruments and percussion, in which Rihm had paid tribute to the pianism of Thelonious Monk. A close comparison of the two scores provides a good example of Rihm's ability to derive one work from another.

Like Helmut Lachenmann, York Hoeller was last featured at Huddersfield in 1986, and like Wolfgang Rihm, he has retained close ties with the German 'romantic' tradition. Gegenklange was the only work of his to be broadcast, but it was not representative of either his most ambitious achievements, or of his most recent scores, as it was substantially written in the 1980s, but revised two years ago. Still, it reminded us of Brahms' significance as far as 20th-century music is concerned, and provided an excellent thibute to Boulez, originally written for his 60th birthday.

The last two broadcasts also reflected some of the other works to be heard at this year's Huddersfield Festival, especially the programme on 8 December, which was substantially devoted to the Amadinda Percussion Ensemble from Hungary. Lukas Ligeti's Pattern Transformations did not overcome the difficulty of writing for such an ensemble, but his father's Sippal, Dobbal, Nadimegeduve, for soprano and percussion was more convincing. It may also presage a flurry of compositional activity, as Ligeti's Horn Concerto receives its premiere in Hamburg on 20 January.

The final broadcast included two more pieces from the recital in which Ian Pace played Rihm's Nachstudie. These were Mauricio Kagel's brief Impromptu No. 2 - a valuable addition to his works for keyboard - and Brian Ferneyhough's Opus Contranaturum. The problem with this piece was the fragmented text, which the pianist was obliged to recite during the performance, but perhaps this will be clarified when the work is incorporated into the opera, Shadow Time, scheduled for the Munich Biennale in 2002.

Finally, no review could end without acknowledging the significance of Richard Steinitz' contribution as Festival Director since its inception. His decision to relinquish the post will create a nearly impossible task for his successor, but it also raises the question as to how his achievement can best be commemorated. After all, his involvement with the Festival has meant virtually giving up composing.

John Warnaby

See report of Festival last November

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