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Rihm’s Vigilia in Munich

June 26, 2012

Lest this blog begin to seem obsessive, I’m taking a few posts to catch up with some of our other projects this summer. June is always one of our busiest times of year, being the summer festival season, and this year has been no exception, with visits to old stamping grounds in Aldeburgh and Spitalfields and our first trip to Musica Viva in Munich on 15th.

Taking Rihm to Germany feels a bit coals-to-Newcastle, so I suppose it was quite an honour to be asked to provide the six singers for Rihm’s Vigilia, a monumental (of course) meditation on Passion Week texts, accompanied by the superexcellent musikFabrik and conducted by Emilio Pomarico (to whom I was more than happy to cede conducting duties and enjoy watching a master at work).

The premise of the piece, what it’s doing and how it does it, is, as Emilio remarked, quite familiar, indeed Romantic – but as always with Rihm he stirs things up so that it’s never quite straightforward. Pure harmonies are dirtied, compromised; lines are broken or stop short unexpectedly, like tricks of false perspective; ideas seem to build then fragment and disjoint, sonorities are muddied and dispersed through extended techniques. Conventional expressivity is seen through a cracked mirror. The seven a cappella movements, separately known as Sieben Passions-texte – are interspersed with instrumental Sonatas, followed by a Miserere for singers and instruments. The instruments are low-string and low-brass trios and percussion onstage, clarinet and horn ‘im Raum’, and organ wherever in the building that is. So it’s a ritual structure with strong echoes of Venetian spatialised church music (a little connection with Rihm’s sometime hero Luigi Nono there, too?).

We’ve done the a cappella movements of Vigilia before several times, and even recorded them (Producer: A Cassidy – just to keep him in every post). Apparently Rihm was listening to Gesualdo a lot when writing them – a fact enthusiastically relayed to me several times over the course of our trip, as if to justify their peculiarities – but as a Gesualdo fanatic I don’t find its influence on Vigilia particularly interesting. Yes, you can see Rihm ‘consuming’ Gesualdo here: the a cappella movements are kind of tonal but with crunchy chords and swerves of tonality, and a constant sense of chromatic dislocation and general tonal apostasy (I actually find this music genuinely transgressive, which is not easy to achieve nowadays. That’s what I like most about it). But really, Gesualdo doesn’t disturb the Rihm equilibrium that much, so it feels less a meeting of minds and more a kind of flavouring (probably the idea), which occasionally comes to the fore but not very often. If anything, I think more of Bruckner than Gesualdo when listening to them.

None of which is to say it’s not a good piece: we love it. It’s a huge sing, its big, muscular shapes stretching the voice and its unbridled (frequently outrageous) tonal (or off-tonal) harmonies and progressions sounding glorious across the ensemble. Some parts (first tenor especially) are shockingly high and loud for long periods, and we’ve just about worked out a way of pacing ourselves so we can really go for them without getting exhausted half way through. Steve, our first tenor, says he’s grown into the ‘role’ since we started singing it – certainly five years of maturing voices have helped make this piece more comfortable for everyone – without, I hope, destroying the sense of fragility and risk that makes for a great performance.

From where I was sitting in the Michaelskirke (Lassus’ church) it really was pretty fine. musikFabrik is such a great ensemble – precise, dramatic, a huge range of colours and dynamics and technically so solid. Their instrumental Sonatas came across as finely nuanced and expressive in spite of the bathy acoustic, which threatened to swallow everything at all points but somehow never quite did. Three cheers to the organist, Francesco Filidei, for keeping up in spite of being about 300 yards away from the action. Nor would I have relished having to use three separate intercoms to keep in touch with organist, clarinettist and horn-player during rehearsals – I’ve no idea how Emilio kept his patience, especially as from where he was standing all three players were virtually inaudible!

However frustrating the acoustics were, the venue made for a quite special performance. There was a sense of space, of the numinous and transcendent. We were drawn inwards to moments of intimate pathos and then flung outwards round the church in echoing cries. Doubts I’d had about sections of the work evaporated, as they so often do with Rihm in the actual performance – the man knows the drama of the moment as well as anybody. And what a nice surprise, too, to meet him afterwards.

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