Issue 1: The Memory of Brahms

By Xenia Pestova

Luzerner Sinfonieorchester and James Gaffigan: Rihm: Symphonie "Nähe fern"

Connections between the music of Brahms and Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952) reach back to Rihm’s Brahmsliebewalzer (1985), Ernster Gesang (1996) and Das Lesen der Schrift (2001-2). This Harmonia Mundi release features the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and James Gaffigan in Rihm’s latest Brahmsian epic: the Nähe fern symphony (2011-12). The dismountable cycle was written especially for the orchestra as a set of prequels to corresponding Brahms symphonies while also making up a symphonic whole of its own.

At first we might wonder if these pieces are but transparent palate cleansers meant for the dubious “sandwich” slot between program openers and the main symphonic meat. However, this suspicion is quickly dispelled. The glowing aftertaste of each work is more akin to bitter chocolate with vinegary raspberries, pungent and creamy cheese, or an almost overbearing, nutty truffle; not always delicious, but impossible to forget, imparting a colorful stain on anything that follows. The music baffles and beguiles: is this Brahms through the mirror of Rihm, or Rihm through a Brahms filter? We are listening to a familiar, yet constantly shape-shifting gestural syntax, straining to taste that word on the tip of the tongue just out of reach, or trying to reconstruct a mother tongue from alien vowels.

The unhurried opening of the first movement spins out a flexible and organic continuity of construction. The end of each section almost dovetails into the next – or into the corresponding Brahms. This can even work tonally: the c-minor conclusion of Nähe fern I segues into Brahms’ First Symphony. At times, we have near-quotations, but these are always obscured or distorted. The rhythmic motif from the heroic opening of Brahms’ Third obsessively shadows Nähe fern III, while Brahms’ Fourth permeates the fabric of IV. There are constant allusions and imitations, such as the timpani pre-echo at the end of Nähe fern I, leading directly into the opening of Brahms’ First.

The music baffles and beguiles: is this Brahms through the mirror of Rihm, or Rihm through a Brahms filter?

At other times, we can follow long phrases of almost conventional Romantic harmonic progressions before they metamorphose or slip away into murky depths. Yet, as soon as the ear identifies a familiar element, the lines start to writhe around and evade our grasp, leading into dark and improbable worlds: magical and nightmarish. While heavier hues tend to prevail, the rich oil palette can also brighten and turn towards watercolor, such as in the airy lyricism of Nähe fern II and moments of dance-like lightness in IV.

The additional short movement for baritone and orchestra is an evocative setting of Goethe’s Dammrung senkte sich von oben (Twilight has fallen from above), sung by Hans Christoph Begemann. The text was also set by Brahms as part of opus 59 (with additional incarnations under the pen of Fanny Mendelssohn and Othmar Schoeck), and provides a temporary lull in the context of the whole. The title of the whole work, translated as “distant proximity” by Charles Johnston in the liner notes, refers to the second line of the poem: “Schon ist alle Nähe fern” (“All that was near is far again”).

In orchestration, Rihm’s symphonic movements are almost identical to the Brahms. The Lucerne Symphony fully exploits this inherent richness of color with ultra-expressive solos and full vibrato in the strings. Gaffigan’s interpretation is masterful and highly convincing, but if anything, this warmth can be slightly too much, making the dish too rich, too saucy. We have to wonder if Gaffigan and the LSO are trying to convince us that this music is “late romantic”, “highly emotional” and “accessible to every listener” along with the writers of the editorial program notes and label publicity. Perhaps there is no need to exaggerate the spices: rather than being “accessible”, the music is open – but on a highly personal level, without striving to please. Nähe fern is by no means a contemporary reworking or clever pastiche; it is a unique translation of the memory of Brahms.

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