Tendernessin the Darkness Et Lux
November 24, 2009, 12:00 am
Wolfgang Rihm premiere, review
The UK premiere of Wolfgang Rihm's Et Lux at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival boasted unflagging concentration. Rating: * * *
By Ivan Hewett
Published: 6:01PM GMT 23 Nov 2009
THREE years ago, the appointment of a new director of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival who hailed from the contemporary art world caused worries among some of the festival's loyal fans. Too much "mixed-media" flim-flam, too many eye-catching sonic "installations" and not enough real music, was what they feared.
They must have been reassured by the two opening concerts last Friday, which were purist to a fault. An air of stillness, darkness and quiet concentration hung over the performances, which were both concerned with the subject of death. Beyond that they were utterly different.
Wolfgang Rihm's Et Lux, here receiving its UK premiere, was a meditation on the Latin Requiem Mass. Rather than setting the whole text, Rihm seized on a few key lines, particularly the ones that pray for Eternal Light, and mused on them for over an hour. In the perfect setting of the luminous and lofty St Paul's Hall stood the four singers of the Hilliard Ensemble, and in front of them sat the Arditti Quartet.
Rihm is a known as a composer of blistering modernist energy, so the first sounds came as a shock. After a wispy single-line introduction from the quartet came a pure euphonious vocal chord. It was light but shadowy, a stunning moment of "darkness visible". For a few seconds, we seemed to be immersed in a melancholy late Renaissance motet by Gesualdo, the quartet reinforcing the side-slipping vocal harmonies.
But soon things became more complex. Often, the music tipped towards harsh dissonance, though always in a soft voice.
Sometimes, the quartet seemed to fight the voices with plucked and scrubbed sounds, sometimes it was like a second four-part choir.
The ending, which withdrew like a departing soul, was beautifully paced and very moving. The performance had the unflagging concentration that inspires complete confidence.
Rihm's piece was hardly easy listening, but at least its tender and subtle surface invited a sympathetic listener.