While recording German composer Wolfgang Rihm's entire body of works, some 400+ pieces, is unachievable, Hanssler-Klassik has undertaken to release all the recordings it has access to from German radio orchestras. This here is the third disc in the label's "Rihm Edition" project, and in my opinion it's the best one yet.
The bulk of the disc are symphonic pieces performanced by the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR. Rihm wrote his Symphony No. 1 in 1969, at the age of only 17. It is a two-movement work in the twelve-tone idiom, yet dedicated to the memory of Karl Amadeus Hartmann. The opening "Appasionato" reflects the inspiration of Webern, but the heavy use of percussion gives it an instability missing from the crystalline works of that composer. The following "Adagio" is generally more subdued and focused on tone colour, but it rises to a thunderous climax. This is an impressive symphonic debut, and it suggests that even if Rihm had stayed with serialism, he would have still made a great name for himself.
By the time he wrote the "Symphony No. 2" for large orchestra (1975), Rihm had developed a mature and highly individual style of hyper-expressionist music whose tortured lines recall Schoenberg and Mahler, but even more schizoid. This symphony too is cast in two movements. The opening, where a single chord is brought to a crescendo before total silence descends on the orchestra for many seconds, is one of the most memorable in the repertoire. The remainder of the first movement, and the whole of the second "Marcia funebre" consist of thick layers and vaguely tonal harmonies. This work ought to appeal to fans of composers like Vasks (who seems neo-Romantic fluff in comparison) and Pettersson.
Rihm wrote a Third Symphony as well, but the Rihm Edition skips over that and some other symphonic pieces and brings us "Vers une symphonie fleuve III" (), the third in a series of works that meant to be only one extract from a massive single piece. This is generally a very different sort of orchestral writing, slow and bleak, sounding something like the late Schnittke. However, an ostinato is established and the piece gradually rises to a furious mechanistic climax.
The remaining two pieces are choral works, performed by the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart. "Nachtwach" for 8 solo voices, mixed choir, 4 trombones and woodblock (1987-88) is a calm study of sonorities. The wordless choir are left to blend with the trombones or are put in violent opposition. Only in the last bars does the woodblock enter, counting out an uncertain pulse. "Raumauge" for mixed choir and 5 percussionists (1986/1993/1987) is rather different, setting a portion of Aeschylus' "Prometheus Bound" by having the male parts growl and snarl the text while the female singers stay in the background with their pure vocalizations. The interplay of voice and percussion reminds me of the first act of Rihm's opera THE CONQUEST OF MEXICO.
If you want to enter the world of Wolfgang Rihm, this disc might make a fine introduction, as it features pieces from a wide span of his career which display his stylistic growth and his perennial strengths as a composer. While I certainly can't promise that Rihm's entire oeuvre will appeal to everyone, I do think that no matter where your tastes lie in 20th century music, from the Darmstadt avant-garde to those who maintained an interest in tonality, the five pieces here should prove very entertaining.