RIHM Et Lux
Wolfgang Rihm originally conceived Et lux for the four voices of the all-male Hilliard Ensemble and the Arditti String Quartet, who gave the first performance in 2009. This recording, which has Rihm’s approval, doubles the vocal forces, with sopranos instead of countertenors, a move that underlines the work’s essential duality – voices and instruments, the old and the new. The voices articulate fragments of the Latin Requiem texts while the instruments sometimes support, sometimes prompt, often challenge the expressive character of the vocal music. The result is a bifurcated musical fabric which constantly approaches – but looks askance at – traditional harmonic structures, with their tidy distinctions between consonance and dissonance.
The most pervasive challenge of Et lux involves ECM’s decision to offer a single track of 61'32", to exclude the sung texts from the booklet, and not to ask the German- and English-language annotators to key their narratives to timed references. The justification for the single track lies in the music’s sustained continuity, its governing constraints of register and texture. Yet this is not seamless classical continuity. Contrasts do not simply diversify and decorate the principal material but disrupt it, rendering its stability and orderly progress uneasy and fraught. Rihm’s musical thinking lies at the heart of present-day modernism’s commitment to what Pierre Boulez (with reference to Berg) once termed ‘radical renewal’. Discarding the avant-garde ideal of seeking to ignore the past, Rihm aims to construct something positive and memorable out of textual and musical elements that acknowledge their distance from earlier – especially Renaissance and Baroque – Requiem settings, yet which still aspire to the kind of clarity that resolutely refuses to fall back on neo-romantic pathos.
This extremely well-recorded performance finely conveys the music’s searing struggle to cohere; and while some of the more austere episodes might strain the listener’s concentration, they are set against eruptive, even melodramatic passages that demonstrate Rihm’s special ability to make something distinctively edgy out of meditation and reflection. This music’s contemporaneity is all the more potent for its questioning attitude to religious beliefs, as well as to the musical methods of past times.