The first of Wolfgang Rihm's Fremde Szenen (Strange Scenes) for piano trio, begins -- predictably enough -- with a strange sound. It comes from the piano, a clean, blank interval spread wide like a horizon. Yawning over two octaves, pedal down, it would be an elegant intonation, but Rihm sets it down as gellend (shrill, crying). At once mechanical and vocal, the sound's resonance is caught by violin and cello, also playing molto vibrato. With strangulating urgency, the first strange scene takes flight but immediately the strings falter, scurrying in glassy harmonics. The piano slaps down another shrieking interval, the strings cry back, the music freezes again.
In the Freudian sense, this music is uncanny, at once deeply foreign and deeply familiar; it tantalizes and alienates ferociously, reverses course with the sharpest knives. What's most striking is Rihm's absolute refusal to relax this back-and-forth. Only once, towards the movement's end, does the music go anywhere: the piano bangs out a cluster in the highest range, the strings shred away; as they finally burst into hysterical operatic tones, the pianist slides effortlessly into an accompaniment pattern right out of the trios of Robert Schumann.. This isn't stolen, but faked, and as a self-punishment for this searing outburst of sustained action, the music chokes into quiet guttural scrambling; after some 15 bars, the texture becomes shallower, bates its breath, and suddenly springs into motion anew, only to be torn off on the brink.
Rihm's music is saturated with such a formal strategy: a fatal race, a frantic flight with clipped wings, a process of going nowhere desperately. What gives this itinerary such force in these pieces is the presence of Robert Schumann. Like an insidious guest, a splinter in the eye, the music of Schumann weaves its figures and its tenor into this stream-of-consciousness music. And for Rihm, few composers offer such fruitful haunting as Schumann; Rihm has written eloquently of Schumann, asking "What is different about Schumann's music? That something is different, different than usual we feel instinctively." Elsewhere, he writes of Schumann's later works, "The whole construction sways...[it is] music whose exertion is perceptible."
A structure, then, that does not contain fluidity, but is itself fluid, a form hunting its shape, making its writing audible for everyone to hear -- these qualities become even more explicit in the extraordinary second movement, a 20-minute character piece to be played "fast and swaying." The music is stuffed with Schumannisms -- rapturous lyricism, swirling arpeggios, tugging syncopations, and neo-Bach counterpoint -- without quoting a note. Writes Rihm, "I have attempted...to invent my own personal portrait of Schumann and his musical 'handwriting.'" The effect is graphic, in both senses, jeopardy never leaves the sound-scene, and music rises persistently from its own burning embers.
The briefer last movement initially establishes a sincere funereal pathos, but again avalanches into pulverized lyrical outbursts and stuttering march patterns. Rihm describes the movement tersely: "Actually only notorious passages. Concentration and its loss." Exactly.