The Kennedy Center

Piano Concerto No. 2

About the Work

Wolfgang Rihm Composer: Wolfgang Rihm
© Thomas May

Sometime during the early 1970s, Karlheinz Stockhausen advised a young student named Wolfgang Rihm: "Please only heed your inner voice." This might sound like rather obvious artistic common sense, but consider the context. Stockhausen, one of Rihm's early mentors, had become a paragon of the postwar avant-garde in Germany. At the time, the ideology of musical "progress" in Europe pressured composers to adopt an austere language and a tone of detachment if not an outright lack of impersonality. Music that suggested the sort of expressive individuality familiar from past tradition was derided as a "reactionary" obeisance to bourgeois values.

Yet Rihm decided early on to heed Stockhausen's advice and has continued to make his own "inner voice" a beacon throughout a distinguished career that was launched in 1974 with the controversial premiere of an orchestral piece titled Morphonie Sektor IV at Donaueschingen, a center for new music in Germany; it was part of an intended cycle Rihm had begun at age 19. Commentators tried to pigeonhole Rihm as representative of a larger movement they variously labeled "neo-expressionism," "neo-Romanticism,"or "the new subjectivity."

In other words, Rihm initially became known as a member of a new generation rebelling against the previous rebels-a generation that wanted to reclaim the emotional connection between composer and audience. For his part, Rihm rejects such labels: "I regard the birth of creative individuality as a micro-process akin to evolution," he has declared.

Regarding the Piano Concerto No. 2, Rihm remarks in an interview with Bj?rn Woll that the dialectic between a traditional genre and his artistic intuition is precisely what makes the challenge of writing a concerto so interesting for him: "If we take a closer look at the ‘traditional' piano concertos, we find that each has its own form. And that is precisely what attracts me-to create something taking its own shape while remaining within a formal continuity."

Born in 1952 in Karlsruhe in southwestern Germany, Rihm became mesmerized by hearing music on recordings at an early age and was not even 10 years old when he decided to write a Mass-despite growing up in a non-musical family. Significant influences on his development have included the composers Zoltán Kodály, Anton Webern, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, and Alban Berg, along with his later discoveries of Morton Feldman and the Italian radical Luigi Nono.

Elsewhere Rihm has articulated his deep admiration for Debussy, particularly for demonstrating the dynamic nature of form not as a pre-existing pattern but as an aspect that must be invented "from scratch" with each new piece. Form, for Rihm, is "the shape of change." Like the self, form does not exist a priori but must be constructed according to specific and unique circumstances.

In December Rihm won the mega-prestigious Grawemeyer Award (the classical music world's equivalent of the Nobel Prize) for IN-SCHRIFT 2, a piece celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Philharmonic's famous concert hall. "I'm only a composer. I only want to write my music," was Rihm's laconic response to the honor. He is widely known for the remarkable breadth of his musical knowledge, which is reflected a widely ranging and extremely prolific oeuvre encompassing solo piano pieces, chamber and vocal music, concertos and symphonic works, and oratorios and operas. Before devoting himself to the life of a composer, Rihm leaned toward painting and literature-both of which continue in varied ways to leave their mark on his composition. In his interview with Woll, Rihm draws an analogy to a painter's brushstrokes: "the vocal character of many of [the Piano Concerto No.2]'s parts will surely be apparent ... finely drawn rather than with a house-painter's brush."

 Technically, there is no "Piano Concerto No. 1" in Rihm's official catalogue, though concertante works abound. These include several for piano (his own instrument), such as an early single-movement chamber concerto-simply titled "Concerto"-and, from the early 1990s, the spatial-acoustic-oriented Sphere, subtitled "contrafacture [an ancient technique of retrofitting new words to an existing melody] with piano-antibody." Rihm however chose the more "old-fashioned" designation "Piano Concerto No. 2" for this recent composition, which was jointly commissioned by the Salzburg Festspiel Fund, the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, and the National Symphony Orchestra. Rihm completed the full score on 29 April 2014. Christoph Eschenbach led the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in the world premiere at the Salzburg Festival last August, with Tzimon Barto as the soloist, as part of a celebration of a series of concerts celebrating Rihm's work. Of Barto, to whom the score is dedicated, Rihm says the following: "An extraordinary artist, most highly creative in his own way. He has the most exquisite pianissimo imaginable," adding, "and that certainly had its influence on some parts of my new work."

The Piano Concerto No. 2 is divided into two movements, the second of which is substantially longer (beginning about 11 minutes into the 28-minute composition). Marked "Andante, cantabile, scorrevole [i.e., in a flowing style], inquieto," the opening movement introduces the piano as a character in the very first measures, dwelling for the first several minutes on chamber-like textures of strings, harp, and clarinets ("less boxing match, more chamber music," as the composer wryly puts it). Rihm writes here with an almost Mozartian transparency, later adding bassoon and horns to the cast, followed by the flutes. The harmonic language, however, is mysterious and ambivalent, more akin to the world of Alban Berg.

The music slows to an Adagio as bass clarinet, oboe, and violin entwine expressive solos against the piano's languid theme. Still more orchestral colors are mingled to arrive at a brief climax, but the mood returns to the mystery of the opening. The flute's ascending line is echoed by the piano-at the very top of its register-to lead directly into the long second movement.

Though the transition is seamless, the second movement ushers in a dramatic shift of mood. Here the music speeds up, pulsating with energy and scintillating with more ostentatious variety, including virtuosic demands for the soloist. Rihm labels this movement a Rondo (Allegro ma non troppo), interspersing the rhythmically animated main theme with colorful episodes. Among the most magical of the latter is a passage marked misterioso, which combines the piano with a rarefied sound world of sustained string harmonics and a haunting solo line for the oboe.

Near the end Rihm channels the discourse into a solo (at times accompanied) cadenza for the pianist. Yet the composer's idea of virtuosity is to allow for this quality to remain "integrated in the song of the totality so that it does not form a foreground," as he observes. "That naturally makes such a piece much more difficult to play than usual virtuoso fodder; the free play of the lines remains unpredictable, ‘virtual' ... the false floor as a resonance box." And in lieu of a grandiose, "showstopper" ending, the cadenza gives way to a concluding passage of deep introspection, and Rihm ends the Concerto with a sequence of reflective, above-the-battle Adagio chords.