Of all the pieces commissioned by Helmut Rilling for the Passion 2000 project, Wolfgang Rihm's is by far the most traditional. Written by a compatriot of Bach, with Passion texts alternating with "meditations" from the Catholic mass and a poem by Paul Celan, this work is Germanic to the core. And while it is a fine work, it has a certain stodginess that is hard to ignore.
Rihm is probably the leading German composer of his generation and one often touted as a European "neo-romantic". This description should not conjure up the likes of the ever tuneful John Corigliano in your mind. Rather, this means that Rihm is a 12 tone composer who has escewed the trappings of total serialism to create music not all that far from Luigi Nono, Alois Zimmerman or even Berg. The composer culled his text from fragments of the St. Luke passion story. By cutting the narration down to the bare bones, the work has a directness that is missing from more verbose passion settings. Words are split between five soloists and the chorus, negating any simple dramatic reading of the text. Instead, it becomes an extended dark meditation on the Luke passion story.
But this lack of drama is also one of the biggest faults in the score. The piece is monolithic. Though occasionally Rihm uses an interesting instrumental effect (courtesy of his time studying with Helmut Lachenman) most of the sections of the work blend into the other sections, almost seamlessly. And though there are changes of tempo, these are mostly quite subtle, and do nothing to relieve the unrelenting Lento feeling of the work. Add to that a very large orchestra that, paradoxically, seems mostly muddy and dark (so dark it makes Brahms sound positively sensuous!) and the work begins to loose steam rather quickly.
The challenge of writing a passion is to match the music to the gradually darkening mood of the text, without becoming unrelentingly dull. Bach is a master of this...and the St. Matthew Passion seems to get deeper and deeper...and more tragic by every chorale. Not so Rihm. Because he starts so darkly, there is basically nowhere for the work to go. By the end, rather than being moved by the arc of the passion story, you are just depressed...not the point behind a spiritual piece of music. So over all, this is a noble failure. There is much strong thought and craft in it. But it fails to reach the heights of it's text.