All of Wolfgang Rihm's music could be described as "Zwiesprach" (dialogue), in that it is never entirely unitary, never merely whole and of itself. Many of his works vehemently collide with other styles, forge the musical handwriting of other composers (Schoenberg, Janacek, Schumann); others collect themselves into broken obelisks, fragmentary or ruinous masses; still other works exude an air of sketchiness, of shape in dialogue with its future shape. In all cases though, one senses in each work a dialogue with mortality -- music giving and receiving gusts from its motionless, cold adverse-face. Theodor Adorno, a writer often in Rihm's sentiments, once wrote that "...work is the death-mask of conception," and the notion suits Rihm's work like a crest.
In the case of the work, Zwiesprach, written for solo piano in 2000, Rihm casts himself into a literal dialogue with the dead: each of the work's five movements signs itself as a musical conversation "with Alfred Schlee" (head for many years of Universal Edition, Rihm's publisher), "with Paul Sacher" (conductor and patron of new music), with "Heinrich Klotz" (arts historian), "with H.H. Eggebrecht" (musicologist), and lastly "with Hermann Wiesler" (art historian). Each was a friend of Rihm's, and each, in macabre "coincidence" ("From life's perspective, death is a coincidence," writes Rihm), died in 1999. Rihm wrote the ensuing suite of short, ruminative pieces as "intimate dialogues[s] over coincidence," and they were premiered the following year.
Dialogues perhaps, but Rihm is not at all a "spiritualist" here: he attempts to talk with the dead, but has no illusions that they talk back -- "death never answers." He cites French poet Paul Valéry's famous notebook-dictum that "Death speaks to us in a profound voice but says nothing."
Rihm's little piano pieces each mime Valéry's image with unsettling eloquence: for while each one is itself a delicate, often nostalgic meditation (with shades of Schumann and late Beethoven), each also proceeds with a fastidiously, impeccably timed sense of pause. Rihm is a master of musical denaturalization; he constantly brings the comfortable phrase or moment into intimate conversation with its anarchic, alien other, and often with great subtlety. Here, especially in the first and last piece, Rihm creates a music suggestive of a warm, familiar body pressed up against a cold glass, like Kafka's "incoherent assumption...thrust like a board between the actual feeling and the metaphor of description." Individual sounds carry a clear and loving affect, almost sentimental; but the progression from moment to moment bears a chill gravity, as if the music could stop (coincidentally?) at any moment. Under these dialogues, incoherent assuming the impossible, silence and stillness -- Death saying nothing -- quietly persists.
The last piece "with Hermann Wiesler," one of Rihm's closest friends, serves as belated "introduction" to the suite, and also raises the opposite condition to the foreground: not that music might fail to explain mortality, but that only music might explain music, impervious to the corrosive effects of extinction. "For music is not death."