Wolfgang Rihm can chat and compose at the same time

The German composer is a master of quite contradictory styles and his output runs to more than 400 works

Tennis legend Jimmy Connors once remarked that, "In an era of specialists, you're either a clay court specialist, a grass court specialist, or a hard court specialist . . . or you're Roger Federer. "   The German composer Wolfgang Rihm, who will turn 65 in March, has something of that almost contradictory completeness, too. He's an expressionist, he's a romantic, he's a hardcore modernist. And he's hugely prolific, not just by the standards of the 20th or 21st centuries. His output runs to more than 400 works, a level that would have been impressive in the 18th or 19th centuries when composers' work lists were a lot longer than they typically are today.

Conductor Gerhard Markson touched on the nature of Rihm's musical profuseness in an onstage chat with presenter Ellen Cranitch at the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra's first Music of Our Time programme of the new year. He pointed out that Rihm shares a characteristic with Mozart, in that he can hold a conversation and compose at the same time.

That may suggest the idea of music pouring out as a stream that can’t quite be dammed, and there’s something of that to be found in the sense of direction and energy within individual pieces and also in the relationships between pieces.

Rihm is fond of creating series of works, and not just in familiar forms such as symphonies or string quartets. The first of his pieces to be heard in Dublin was a piano trio, Fremde Szene III, played by Trio Fontenay in 1990 (the title translates as Strange – or Foreign – Scene) and his Abegesangsszene I and V (Farewell Scenes) were played by the NDR Sinfonieorchester under Michel Tabachnik at the NCH when Dublin was European Capital of Culture in 1991.


Markson's offering was also part of a series. Verwandlung 4 (the title means "transformation" or "metamorphosis") is one of a series that was begun in 2002 and currently runs to six parts, the fourth of which was completed in 2008. The chunky cut and thrust of the opening leaps lead into a work that seems to have its feet as solidly in the past as in the present.

Musical nerds and musicologists will surely while away many hours tracing connections the music suggests as well as possible specific references. But there’s nothing in the music that makes it at all sound imitative. The past has been fully digested, and the musical argument is always cogent in Rihm’s own terms.

One of the pleasures of Gerhard Markson's years as principal conductor of the NSO was the detailed care of his handling of challenging 20th- and 21st-century pieces, from Stravinsky to Boulez and beyond – and, yes, he did programme Boulez. His coolly dispassionate approach presented Rihm's Verwandlung 4 with an impressively streamlined muscularity.

The companion piece, Stephen Gardner's Lament (2009), was written in memory of a niece, and is exactly what it says, an expression of grief. It builds from a quiet start to a strained, pained wall of sound, which retreats to end with the musical equivalent of a fade to black.

Inconsistencies of our times

This is the second year of the RTÉ NSO's Music of Our Time season, an intended revitalisation of the Horizons series through which RTÉ had essentially farmed out programming responsibility to Irish composers. The programming has been taken back where it belongs, and the balance of the concerts has benefited as a result.

There is, however, an ongoing lack of joined-up thinking affecting the series. Although the concerts feature the least familiar works that the NSO explores, they are now being presented without printed programmes. So this month, Handel's Messiah, the best-known oratorio on the planet, was presented with a programme book that included notes and full sung texts, and four pages were devoted to Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto and Bruckner's Seventh Symphony last Friday. But no printed material was provided for Rihm and Gardner, and the scattergun conversation from the stage, welcome as it was, did leave essential information uncovered.

Friday's concert began with RTÉ Lyric FM presenter Paul Herriott giving an encomium from the stage for the evening's soloist, John O'Conor, who had turned 70 just two days earlier. Beethoven is home territory for O'Conor, the only Irish pianist to have made commercial recordings of all Beethoven piano sonatas and concertos.

His playing on Friday seemed slightly nervy, the tone brighter and a little harder than is his wont, and the kind of magisterial perspective that he can bring to this music at his best was only fleetingly present.

The Bruckner symphony was altogether richer, the orchestra’s playing both sonorous and finely spun, with Markson’s spacious manner providing the kind of breathing space that allowed the music to speak with real grandeur.

Grandeur was not on the table for the return visit of San Francisco-based, all-male choir Chanticleer on Sunday. The programme, My Secret Heart, a sequence of "songs of love from the 16th to the 21st century", ranged from Palestrina and Guerrero to Gershwin, Noël Coward and Freddie Mercury, with living composers represented by the choir-friendly figures of Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, Augusta Read Thomas and Eric Whitacre.

Perhaps surprisingly, the voices took a little while to settle in for each half of the concert. The music-making was at its most persuasive when the harmonies were at their richest and sweetest, and the vocal high-jinks at their most pronounced. In other words – and this should really be no surprise – it’s the 20th and 21st centuries that suit the style of these astonishingly accomplished vocalists best.