"Klangbeschreibung" (Sound description), 1987, is a composition of massive scale, and it is dark and heavy of character. Klangbeschreibung I (K I) lasts 20 min. (for three orchestral groups), K II lasts close to 30 min. (for 4 female voices, 5 brass players and 6 percussionists) and K III lasts close to 40 min. (for large orchestra). A total of close to 90 min. of music, this giant of a composition lasts pretty much as long as the longest Mahler symphony!
"Klangbeschreibung" is just phenomenal. Although I like pretty much everything I've heard so far by this composer, with this work for certain Rihm clearly establishes himself to me as a worthy successor to the great post-war generation of composers (Boulez, Stockhausen, Carter, Xenakis, Birtwistle, Ligeti - when he's up to form, Lutoslawski and others). A torch-bearer for the future. This composition has everything I expect from the hands of a truly great composer: unique and personal language, utmost authority, wonderful imagination, inevitability of musical argument, consummate handling of musical tension, etc. What's more, in the years I have delved into the rich, truly exciting realms of great atonal music, not often have I been excited and adrenaline-rushed that much by a musical composition (except by the best Stockhausen and a few others), and have I been left with such a crushing, weighty impression of it! This seems to me a giant under all compositions, not only post-war but any period of Western art music. A landmark in music, and I would say in my view one of the stand-out compositions of the entire 20th century. Wow, did I say that? Apparently I did.
As the CD booklet says, the composition is rather one of single words, phrases, than one of whole sentences (to use the analogy with language), but somehow it all fits to give magical conherence. If atonal music is compared to abstract painting, this must be among the most 'abstract paintings' of them all. Often not even gestures of figures are heard, like in Carter or Boulez, but frequently "Klangbeschreibung" is mere sounds. K I dwells in dark colors, draws for that heavily on low-registered woodwinds, and sets the tone for the weight of the entire composition, which draws on silence or almost-silence between sounds to a large extent in creating tension. In K I, slowly moving as the other two sections, a wonderful shifting of orchestral colors is heard alongside shifting in harmony and concomitant changes in dynamic expression. K I seems the most fluid of all three sections.
K II contrasts wonderfully gentle treatment of voices, which hardly ever attack, with attacklike, stepped dynamics of crystalline, long-drawn brass chords. The female voices of course rise to vehement expression as well, but this is achieved by swelling of voices rather than by sharp outbreaks. If you know what Rihm does with the female voices in "Eroberung von Mexico" then expect similar textures in K II. However, here four female voices appear, making the textural possibilities even richer. The percussion instruments carefully set accents. At some points where bass-heavy percussion briefly sounds, the contrast to the female voices can be very captivating. The text comes from a poem by Nietsche and is not the most cheerful you can imagine.
K III: This is a true monster which creeps along for almost 40 minutes. Here dynamic contrasts become even more violent - or more frequently violent - than in K I. Single chords pound through the musical landscape with full weight and power, but quiet passages with mighty tension are heard for a large part of those 40 min. as well. Quiet passages and forceful outbreaks follow each other relatively rapidly, with only few passages exclusively dominated by either one. In fact, K III seems a succession of brutal sound attacks, always prepared in tension by the somewhat softer moments in between. This thing of the proportions of an entire mid-sized symphony, keeping tension flawlessly throughout its duration, is indeed a monster to me. You'll have to hear for yourself to see if you agree.
As I said, in my assessment so far one of the most weighty compositions of the entire 20th century.
(As you may have noticed from this review I write enthusiastically; however, I seldom throw around with superlatives as I do here - and here I think I have a reason).
GO and GET IT!
"Morphonie" for large orchestra with string quartet (1972, 40 min. duration) is the first large-scale work with which the young Rihm introduced himself to a broader audience at its premiere in Donaueschingen. Wild sound eruptions alternate with quiet, static passages of often tender soul-exposing character (string quartet!). Very exciting.