Siebens Passiones-Texte/Vigilia, Wolfgang Rihm
Last year I stepped back from my previous role as a member of the EXAUDI vocal ensemble, with whom I had sung for the previous 13 years. As they put on a lovely evening of drinks and memories to wish me goodbye, I struggled to think of an answer to the inevitable question – “Which was the best concert or piece?”. (Yes, I should have seen it coming).
After much humming and haaing, I settled on the Rihm, and I stand by that decision. The passion texts are a standalone composition, but Rihm also added an instrumental intermezzi to create Vigilia. As a group, we had already performed the Passiones-Texte a couple of times before we had the chance to get together with musicFabrik twice during the groups 10th birthday year, 2012, and perform Vigilia in Munich and Huddersfield. We have also recorded the Passiones-Texte (CD available through the EXAUDI website!)
So why, of all the extraordinary pieces I sang with EXAUDI, is this my favourite? I am sure that some of it comes from the happy memories I have of the particular concerts where we sang it – the week in Munich was an extraordinary week, and Rihm himself came along, which is always nice.
It is definitely more than that however. The scoring (SATTBB) is the same as one interpretation of Gesualdo’s Tenebrae motets, and indeed we have interspersed the two in one particularly tiring concert in Oxford! There will always be comparisons with the Gesualdo – same scoring, same texts, and indeed considerable use of chromatic ideas. The Rihm feels like a cross between Strauss and Gesualdo however, with a good shake of later 20th century wackiness added for good effect. I can’t begin to explain the feeling of standing in the middle of the group during some of the extraordinary climaxes of this piece – raw power and emotion surrounding me, yet mixed with unbelievable technique, immaculate tuning and musicianship of the very highest order.
For readers unfamiliar with the texts, the Tenebrae services are those traditionally sung in the last three days of Holy Week, ie the few days before Easter. The texts are responsories – an initial section (the responsory), followed by a verse, followed by a repetition of part of the initial section. The texts are, unsurprisingly, mostly rather miserable! (My soul is sorrowful even unto death; stay you here, and watch with me, for example). This gives Rihm the chance to set the words with heart-rending harmonic progressions, and he utilises the sonorities available given the choice of voices to maximum effect.
Complete as Vigilia, this piece is a rather different (and considerably longer) affair. I think I prefer the Passiones-Texte as a standalone piece, but the impact of the crashing percussion and very bass-instrument heavy intermezzi is certainly not negligible. Give the Passiones-Texte a try first, and if you find it needs something extra, then go with Vigilia!