James Gaffigan / Luzerner Sinfonieorchester

Wolfgang Rihm: Symphonie "Nähe Fern"

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The four-movement "symphony" included on this release was not composed as such but instead arose as the result of a set of individual commissions: a Swiss orchestra asked Wolfgang Rihm to write a sort of coda to each of Brahms' four symphonies and then performed the originals together with the Rihm glosses. Rihm then assembled the four pieces into a quasi-symphony, also including a short song containing the Goethe phrase "Nearness Distant" that gave the work its title. Rihm's work is thus not a symphony in the classical sense but a set of modern meditations on each of Brahms' four symphonies. He does not quote Brahms directly but alludes vaguely to textures, figures of melody, details of orchestration, as if Brahms were being remembered in a dream. The idea is intriguing, but the conceptual framework does not hold up. It might have been more fruitful if conductor James Gaffigan and the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, who do fine work with Rihm's dense atonal textures, had gone back to the original idea and presented Brahms along with Rihm; there's certainly abundant precedent (Schoenberg spoke eloquently in this regard) for exploring Brahms' influence on modernist movements, and the idea fits into Rihm's overall attempt to reconcile modernism with the German symphonic tradition. By itself, however, Nähe fern may satisfy only those already attuned to Rihm's difficult language.

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