Great Men of Music


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The final days (8–9 April 2017) of this year’s edition of Lucerne Festival at Easter were the event’s culmination with the programmes of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Mariss Jansons with pieces by Wolfgang Rihm, in the fascinating interpretation of Emanuel Ax and the orchestral conducting masterclass given by Bernard Haitink.

Emanuel Ax onstage is a complete negation of vainglorious showiness and eccentricity. I have listened to both his recordings with Jo-Jo-Ma and Isaac Stern and live performances. Still, Ax is not just a brilliant performer of Piano Concerto in E-flat major Mozart (К 482), far from that. He went beyond the sound delving into incredible depths, turning audiences towards themselves, towards Mozart’s ‘productive power which operates upon generation after generation, and still is not wasted or consumed’, to quote Goethe’s Conversations with Johann Peter Eckermann. He is an unbelievable musician, concentrated, introverted, sensitive, and free of vanity or artistic populism.


Wolfgang Rihm’s two pieces completed in 2016 and given world premieres this year were in memoriam in their essence. Rihm’s first piece in that concert was Gruss-Moment 2, commissioned by the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation and given its world premiere in February 2017 by the Berlin Philharmonic, came out of the blue. Rihm composed his Gruss-Moment in 2015 on the occasion of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary and the work was almost immediately performed at Lucerne Festival. Boulez’s death months later inspired Rihm to compose Gruss-Moment 2. In memoriam Pierre Boulez features an unusual orchestral solution, where the winds and the percussion section take the lead while the strings join them only intermediately.

The second piece, Requiem-Strophen for soloists, mixed choir and orchestra was the Swiss premiere following its performance in Munich on 30 and 31 March. With Rihm, sacral music is a specific form of an insight. Consequently, Requiem-Strophen is in tune with such composer’s works as Mein Tod. Requiem in memoriam Jane S. (1989), Memoria. 3 Requiem-Bruchstücke for boy soprano, alto, choir and orchestra (2004), Reminiszenz (2016), Missa brevis (2017), De Profundis (2015), the instrumental requiem Et Lux (2016). The composer said in an interview about the latter that it was a ‘requiem, but it is not a requiem to someone: I imagine being in an anamnesis or in an analysis and I remember words of a process which seems to date back quite of while. It also has a biographic connotation. When I was young, I often sang in choirs and, of course, we sang the whole repertoire of choir of both the classical and the romantic epoch. We sang the big requiems of Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi, Brahms, and also motets that originated from requiem texts. And since then, I’ve always remembered those texts. The ‘stream of sound’, the discourse of words, the mix between both the vocal and instrumental articulation were the main essence of composing. Into that music, the words were flowing from my memory. I often tend to proceed that way: I memorize texts and later––when composing––I remember the texts and use them in my composition. I don’t always remember these texts, but often I do. Et Lux was written for the Hilliard Ensemble and the Arditti Quartet. Et Lux doesn’t require vocal specialists, but vocalists who sing in very well tune. And as we know, singing in tune is always the hardest when singing’.


The composer does not construe the Requiem just like a Missa pro defunctis for the genre has long ago expanded beyond its church purposes. The author said he was interpreting it in the sense of Ein deutsches Requiem by Brahms, in the vein of Verdi and Faure’s requiems as a solace to the living or a projection of death’s images. His music creates and impression of a continuously crossing set of axes: the horizontal axis is the drama of life represented through verses by Rainer Maria Rilke, Johannes Bobrowski, Michelangelo and Hans Sahl, while the vertical axis is the thought of God expressed in the canonical requiem text and Isaiah 40:6-7; 129 (130) Psalm. This continuous crossing of the two axes is accompanied by changing the texts (in Latin and German) and their meaning: while the poems are centered on death, God and eternity in Bible verses are contrasted to transience. Accordingly, the vocal and orchestral roles: the choir performs the prayer evocations (unaccompanied or accompanied by certain instruments), the lines by Rilke and Bobrowski are assigned to the soloists, while the baritone sings Michelangelo’s sonnets.

The crossing of the axes is discernible also in the number of the parts and their distribution: four untitled parts containing 14 (3+4+4+3) sections, of which the two in the middle are apparently symmetrical in a different way, while the enclosing contain the resuming messages. The works opens with Isaiah 40:6-7: ‘All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field’. The closing part and the finale feature the lines from Bobrowski’s Der Tod, Sahl’s Strophen (‘I go slowly from the world, into a landscape beyond all distance’) and the canonical texts of Lacrimosa (‘Full of tears will be that day’), Libera me (‘Deliver me, O Lord, from death eternal on that fearful day’), Agnus Dei (‘Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world’). This Rihm’s opus leaves an impression of a confession of a kind: the poems by authors of different periods epitomise man’s agonies and fears, while the canonical texts and Bible verses are a confession, a prayer, humility and trust. The first and the third part repeat three times, all in all, Rilke’s Der Tod from The Book of Images where the contrasted life/death, happiness/agony, visibility/hiddenness come to the fore once again. Heidegger construes thoughts about death, particularly in Rilke’s works, as a quest for God, which means acknowledgment of God’s existence and inarticulacy.

Der To dist groß.

Wir sind die Seinen

Lachenden Munds.

Wenn wir uns

Mitten im Leben meinen,

Mitten in uns.

(Death looms large.
We are those who are
its laughing mouths.
As we consider ourselves alive,
it dares to weep
in our midst.

Gary Bachlund)

Der Tod by Bobrowski, whose poetic muse interprets the topics of death, guilt, war occurs in the final parts of the Requiem. The second part concentrates on the emotionality of the sonnets and Psalm 129 (130) (Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord; Lord, hear my voice.).

Rihm’s music within the framework of his compositional techniques is remarkably poetical and lyrical, finely orchestrated, delicately and richly textured, evincing apparent symbolism and rhetorical significance. The author argues his choices of lyrics by his intuitive approach and striving to express his emotions being unable though to define precisely why. As was the case with his previous works, here again he says he has used a simplified musical language, but ‘the apparent simplicity is actually the difficulty’. While the choral texture is meant for non-professionals too as he says he writes for ‘ordinary people’.

Though always detached as an author, the themes of death and God are important to Rihm as read through the Bible, poetry or theological literature.

Conductor Bernard Haitink (88), a winner of numerous awards, who has received two Grammies and five Gramophones, gave his masterclass in conducting at Lucerne Festival at Easter 2017. Participants considered four examples of major styles: Mozart’s Prague Symphony, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, Rhenish and Debussy’s La mer. Haitink teaches in the way he conducts: controlling where necessary his gestures, clearly articulating, using not unnecessary movements, both strictly rhythmically and expressively. The benchmarks Haitink provided was textual consistency with the scores; he reduced excessive tension in the performances, accentuating even flow of music, breathing and phrasing; reminding to gear the dynamic characteristics to the style and the composer, for example, to differentiate the extreme dynamisms in Beethoven: forte-fortissimo or piano-pianissimo; he differentiated the degrees of differences in dynamism and accentuated the contrasts on the right places. To him, achieving simplicity, intelligibility and precision proved the most important aspects.


The final two days at Lucerne Festival at Easter with their 25 or so percent of attendance capacity, became a special cultural showpiece for the audiences, who have nothing left but change their views and way of thinking unless they happened to have no sense of music at all. Lucerne Festival at Easter is a powerful overture to Lucerne Summer Festival, which will in three months time offer a new series of elite works and performers: the European, world or Swiss premieres of pieces by such composers-in-residence as Michel van der Aa, Helena Winkelman, Heinz Holliger, Lisa Streich, Friedrich Cerha, John Luther Adams, Luca Francesconi, Matthew Kaner, etc., as well as the world premiere of the arrangement for strings and the text of On an Overgrown Path [Po zarostlém chodníčku] by Leoš Janáček and the Swiss premiere of Chant funèbre op. 5 by Igor Strawinsky.

Diversity is indeed the key to the concept of Lucerne Festival, an event free of prejudices, widely open to ideas, a festival offering chances, novel creative solutions, substantial melodising and a visionary management.

Great Men of Music

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