Wolfgang Rihm: Sostenuto

CD - ‘Art is timeless and bears witness to human existence from everlasting to everlasting,’ the German composer Wolfgang Rihm once said. This is also the reason he espouses no single school of thought or system
cover: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra image: Concertgebouworkest
cover: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra image: Concertgebouworkest

‘Composers must cherish their imaginations; their ideal state is total self-realisation. They must not stop to ponder a given work, but should instead go in search over and over again: composition is like a moto perpetuo.’

It will come as no surprise to learn that Rihm himself composes at breakneck speed, immediately testing out all his ideas and conceptions. His œuvre has, in effect, grown like a sprawling life story. This is also the reason he espouses no single school of thought or system. Instead, his source and frame of reference are the entire history of the world, all the many centuries of musical tradition.

Again and again, the familiar emerges in his music. Again and again, known human emotions take on a sound that is as familiar as it is new and confrontational. Again and again, it seems as if Rihm’s music had already been resounding deep within our own minds. And again and again, that same music spurs us on to think, reflect and meditate.

The orchestral work Sostenuto is no exception. The eighth of Rihm’s works to be performed by the Concertgebouw Orchestra received its world premiere on 5 March 2020, when concerts were still being given in front of live audiences in the Netherlands.

The title means both ‘sustained’ or ‘resonating’, as well as ‘slow’ and ‘stately’. The tempo indication is Andante sostenuto, a tempo of sustained calm, with the comment that a rigid tempo would be altogether unacceptable. The notes must flow and overflow. Just as when the sostenuto pedal on the piano is applied, the notes depressed at that moment continue to resound, so do immense chords build in Sostenuto. As a result, quasi-Debussian chords, driven by melodic lines descending from the heights, regularly burst into overwhelming clusters from which a new wave is again born. The restlessness builds throughout the work, culminating in a climax in the form of a snare drum duet which is short and nervous in equal measure.

Eventually, the work slowly fades out, albeit in a way that would not seem to preclude the possibility of a continuation. After all, the moto perpetuo must be kept in motion.