Wolfgang Rihm: The Eleventh String Quartet
In Wolfgang Rihm's vast catalogue the string quartet is given pride of place (close to three hundred and fifty works): At the time of his Fifth Quartet (1981-83), Rihm spoke of it as if the word quartet were "a magic word," expressing "the secret nature of art." In any case this formation, an extreme combination of concentration and expressivity, is one of those which has most effectively expressed the narrative approach and the "new simplicity" that has made Rihm the German composer of his generation the most played (he was born in 1952) – in addition to having enabled this precocious student of Fortner, Stockhausen and Klaus Huber to produce an irresistibly protean body of work while remaining within the glorious Austro-German heritage which ranges from Beethoven to the Second School of Vienna and from Mahler to Lachenmann. Even for such a strong adept of "works in progress," the inception of the Eleventh Quartet was a lengthy process – so much so that when it was premiered in Essen in January and in New York in October it came eight years after the Twelfth Quartet!
Wolfgang Rihm started to work on it back in 1997, upon the request of Peter Heid, a friend from the Takacs Quartet and to whom this piece is dedicated. Starting with many scattered sketches to which he initially considered adding a baritone voice, he soon found himself faced with a "block" that his backlog of orders forced him to leave in a state of ruin; he later came back to the piece between 2002 and 2004 to transform it into his Etude for Quartet (his desire for vocal expression being given free rein in Solo e pensoso, for baritone, alto and harp, based on two sonnets by Petrarch). An Etude for Quartet the "constellation" of which he went on to temporally and vertically enrich and develop in his own manner thus turning it into the Eleventh Quartet: This approach of his which is prodigiously erudite and fluid and in which he proceeds in the manner of a painter – through the accumulation of successive layers and with a sense of colour – as well as that of a sculptor or a poet – through the importance he attaches to form but especially to its respiration, its organic quality, this "vibration between signs"* which defines music for him. This quartet is in one single part (without interruption) lasting approximately thirty minutes and is composed of different elements discreetly integrated into the work and which fit together thanks to a process of continual osmosis and transformation. The main structure is rather fluid and constantly changes according to a traditional thematic development. Rihm invites us to "think of music as something that takes the shape of a river, like the movement of the substance of sound, like emotion in form." The interactions between the four instruments are a mix of an intimate conversation, aggressive, almost violent excitement and furious gestures with a haven of peace in the middle, a sort of interlude composed of long sustained notes, slow chords that provide a brief glimpse of a harmonious peace before the "tumult."
Rihm is referred to as a so-called neo-classic or post-modern composer but no such adjective or classification accurately describes the kaleidoscope of influences in his work. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of music has led him to adopt an eclectic system in which past and present coexist. He is particularly fond of Schumann and often refers to the example of what he calls "free prose" or "music that renews itself at each instant."
Out of the impressive body of Beethoven's last string quartets, Opus 131 is undoubtedly the boldest and most experimental. In this work that monopolised his attention during most of 1826 and which therefore features as a legacy, never had the composer pushed back so far the limits of the classic form. From the initial austere fugue to the almost unbearable tension of the finale, Beethoven, although rarely indulgent concerning his own works, acknowledged that inventiveness was prevalent during the entire forty minutes of the quartet. Among other innovations, while ensuring a musical continuity, the seven movements of the piece, which vary extremely in length, ranging from a few measures to the four hundred measures of the finale, follow one another without interruption in an overarching structure dominated by the theme and the variations of the fourth movement. As is often the case in Beethoven's later works, these variations start with simple tuneful airs which through their transformations rise to unsuspected heights. When listening to this piece, one cannot help but understand Schubert's distress as he wondered whether it was still possible to compose after that.
Musée du Louvre: Henri Loyrette, president director; Monique Devaux, artistic director for the concerts
Arditti String Quartet
Verbier Festival 2010