The world premiere recording of Wolfgang Rihm's Requiem-Strophen (2015/2016) with Mariss Jansons conducting the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks with Mojca Erdmann, Anna Prohaska and Hanno Müller-Brachmann, from BR Klassik NEOS. Rihm is perhaps the most prominent living German composer, so his engagement with the Requiem form is significant, particularly as
he deals thoughtfully with the issues of life and death which any true requiem should address. This Requiem is secular but very spiritual and sincere, more so than many that just borrow the form. It is austere, yet lucidly beautiful, and deeply felt. It is strongly structured, fourteen sections in four parts with an epilogue, like an interlocking puzzle, with interconnecting themes and internal patterns. The orchestration is concise, nothing frivolous, nothing wasted. The word “Strophen”means verses, but it's used here not just because the piece uses verse, but because this provides yet another level of meaning, reflecting the formal internal procession of the piece through different stages : a true Mass in the deepest sense.
Rihm's Requiem-Strophen begins, not with the blaze like the Angel of Death at the end of Time but with the cry of an oboe, a more “human” voice. Significantly, it is cradled by the two female soloists, singing not in unison, but in harmony. “The oboe never starts a sentence”, writes Brachmann, “it always answers, just as every Requiem is a reaction to that which is unalterable – a person, with whom we shared our life, is no more”. The oboe is also a reed instrument, wordlessly reflecting the parable from Isiah which serves as text in the Initial. “Omnis caro faenum” (All flesh is grass, and all, its loveliness is like the flowers of the field), which must die, but may set seed. This carries through to the rest of the First Part, where the oboe's low timbre is extended by the slow beats of muffled percussion – a funeral march - the chorus and later the soloists singing long chromatic lines, lit by calls from muted brass and a string instrument, being plucked in a deliberately unsettling discord. The Kyrie offers a note of hope, though it is brief and operates like a reiteration of the first section.
Three Sonnets from Michelangelo form the framework of the Second Part, In the first sonnet, bright sounding brass announce the entry of the bass soloist (Hanno Müller-Brachmann) singing of the inevitability of death. The text is Michelangelo, transcribed by Rainer Maria Rilke. This is a pointed reference to Shostakovich (Please see my piece on Shostakovich Sonnets of Michelangelo here). This requiem is ameditation, too, on artists and the role of art in a nihilist civilization that seems hell-bent on self-destruction. Thus the ominous murmurings in the orchestra as the Psalm (De profundis clamavi ad te Domine) begins, and the elliptical lines of the chorus,which stretch forth then break off suddenly yet keep returning, wave after wave. As the lines become firmer, individual instruments in the orchestra awaken and join in. This structure reiterates the words of the sonnet “Des Todes sicher, nicht der Stude wann, das leben kurz und wenig komm ich weiter”. The second Sonnett (“VonSünden voll, mit Jahren überladen”) begins with a sudden crash,soon retreating to a smooth string line behind the bass, intoning with intense depth, his voice rising very high on the words “….hin, Wo sich die Seele formt” as if trying to reach upwards. The last line “und mach ihr sicherer die Wiederkehr” repeats the ellipse employed before, which is further replicated by a reprise of the Psalm, this time again subtly varied, though the stop start rhythm is retained. Typical Rihm patterns within patterns ! Just as the Kyrie provided a bridge between the First and Second Parts of Rihm's Requiem, Sonnett II (“Schon angelangt ist meines Lebens Fahrt”) draws the Second Part together as a coherent whole, as well as leading into the Third Part.
The chorus sing Rilke's Der Tod ist groß wir sind die Seinen in what is effectively a Libera me. This first section of the Third Part contains a strophe within a strophe, the choral part interrupted by a dramatic interlude executed with spartan simplicity – sinle notes of hollow, beaten percussion, repeated in succession before the chorus returns, not singing but chanting the word “Libera me”, and then, after a silence interrupted briefly by percussion, the blunt words “de morte”. Nothing else – no “aeterna”. Where does the liberation in this Requiem come from ? The female soloists (Erdmann and Prohaska) who were largely silent during the Second Part return in the Lacrimosa, their lines intricately intertwined. The Missa pro defunctis surges through Rihm's Requiem-Strophen like an underground river, resurfaces as a reminder that, however new the music, what it represents is beyond time. Thus the Sanctus, the holiest point in any Mass, where Rihm weaves the text in elaborate patterns, single words and parts of words repeated creating depth of texture. “Hosanna in excelsis” emerges in a blaze of chromatic radiance, even though it follows the pattern of stop and start that is the pulse of this requiem. “Der Tod ist groß“ returns too,accompanied by percussion, alternately full throated and quietly hollow. Rihm's Requiem-Strophen reaches its conclusion in the present, so to speak, with a Fourth Part that begins with a Lacrimosa based not on liturgy but on Der Tod, a poem by Johannes Bobrowski published in 1998. This poem, like the Rilke poem, was quoted briefly in the First Part of the piece. This Lacrimosa is scored for the two female soloists,yet again singing complex cross-harmonies, this time with an extended interlude for orchestra and choir, where turbulent chords replace the hollow percussion in the First Lacrimosa, This interlude surges forwards, wiping away what has gone past, preparing the way for the Lacrimosa of the Missa pro defunctis intoned, in Latin, by Müller-Brachmann. His final “Libera me” rings out before he falls silent and the voices of the choir ring out around him, like an angelic chorus. At last, in this Agnus Dei, the protagonist has found peace, of a sort. The words “Dona nobis Pacem” are divided into fragmented patterns, but warmed by the refined writing for voice, the words have radiance.
Is there an afterlife in Rihm's meditation on life and death ? His Requiem-Strophen concludes with an Epilog, using the text of Hans Sahl's poem Strophen, published in 2009. The poem itself is elliptical, phrases repeated with slight variation, so it lends itself perfectly to Rihm's approach. “Ich gehe langsam aus der Welt heraus in eine Landschaft jenseits aller Ferne”…..and what I was and am and will stay forever, “zeht mit mir ohne Ungeduld und Eile, als war ich nie gewesen oder kaum”.(Go with me without impatience as if I had never been or hardly was). The soloists are in repose, but the choir sings on, serenely, and the orchestra rises to new heights. The ebb and flow and stop start pulse remains, its significance revealed. The pulse of an individual human body might cease, but others continue to beat and will do so in bodies as yet unborn. Rihm, like Schoenberg before him, has always acknowledged his appreciation of Johannes Brahms, whose German Requiem is an obvious model, though Rihm's idiom is uniquely his own. Rihm's Requiem-Strophen is therefore much more than a generalized Requiem but also a tribute to artists, poets and composers who have gone on before, and an inspiration for creative minds in the future.
It's worth getting this recording on disc rather than online, because the CD includes an almost poetic essay CD by Jan Brachmann on the philosophy behind it,describing Rihm's discussions with George Steiner. “Intellectual” should not put anyone off, even in these days when critical thinking is treated as thought crime : all sentient human beings should have the capacity to listen and learn. Nonetheless, it is not at all difficult to approach Rihm's Requiem-Strophen on a musical and emotional level.