Some composers don’t travel

Some composers don’t travel


norman lebrecht

March 13, 2017

Wolfgang Rihm turns 65 today. He is being lionised in German media and ignored in all others.

Rihm is by far the busiest of living German composers, rushing from one rich commission to the next. He has been composer in residence at the Lucerne and Salzburg festivals and is a favourite of Anne-Sophie Mutter, who in 2010 premiered his violin concerto at Carnegie Hall.

Rihm gets a fair hearing, but audiences outside his language zone simply don’t respond as they do back home.

It’s a fact of life that some fine composers, like some fine wines, don’t travel.

Max Reger one way, Vaughan Williams the other. Beloved at home, unheard abroad.

Happy birthday, Wolfgang Rihm.


  • John Borstlap says:

    ‘Lichtes Spiel’ is beautiful music, harking back to the early 20th century when music often balanced on the edge of coherence. Only in the middle it gets a bit less, but who is to complain? It is a great improvement on his earlier works.

  • Mr Oakmountain says:

    I am not aware that Reger is particularly beloved in the German speaking countries – At least not in Austria. Neither the Wiener Konzerthaus nor the Musikvereinssaal show any Reger in the near future. If I want to buy Reger on CD – which I do not – I have to resort to NAXOS CDs featuring the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. No BPO Karajan disk, no VPO Böhm …

    • James says:

      In fact, there is, thankfully, a great deal of Reger on CD, certainly here in Berlin.
      Just down the road, at Dussmanns Kulturkaufhaus, Reger on disc is to be
      found, directed by Schuricht, Suitner, Blomstedt, Konwitschny, Albrecht, Jarvi Sr.,
      Herbig, Keilberth, Bongartz, Roegner, Polyansky, Stein, Schmidt-Isserstedt, Bohm..
      rather a good showing. Also, much organ music as well as chamber and choral.
      On German radio Reger is heard much more often than those far away could know.
      As regards public tastes: the tyranny and sloth of conductors, concert managers,
      and the largely clueless audiences wreak havoc equally.

    • David says:

      Also Zagrosek, Scherchen, Abbado, Janowski, Thielemann….

      seek and ye shall find

    • David says:

      and Ormandy, Lintu, Segerstam, Schirmer, Volkov…
      and Franz-Paul Decker leading the New Zealand SO.
      My martini runneth over.

  • Brian B says:

    Weber and his (great) Freischuetz is the signal example of a work which does not travel well outside of German speaking areas. I’ve never understood why, Wagner cribbed so much from it. Pfitzner is a more recent example, though if Vickers had taken up the role as he did Grimes, Palestrina might be much better known.
    Quite aside from RVW, even Elgar, other than Enigma, is a tough sell in the U.S.

    • John Borstlap says:

      And Sibelius was quickly accepted and celebrated in the Anglosaxon world while being rejected in the German-speaking world – where he still is almost non-existent, which is strange given Sibelius’ symphonic writing.

      • Hilary says:

        Karajan’s advocacy being remarkable in this respect, and further belies the charge of conservative programming which is lazily levelled against him.

        • John Borstlap says:

          True! He was just quite selective, and music without anything that could offer his talents some space could not possibly be interesting to him, apart from any ideological wrapping paper.

  • boringfileclerk says:

    Rihm is among the best composers we have today. He is less known worldwide because the unwashed masses wrongly think that the likes of Philip Glass is what real music should sound like.

    • Olassus says:

      Actually there are a number of wonderful composers around. People have to listen!

      You are of course entirely right. Comparing Rihm with Philip Glass or Steve Reich or even John Adams is just futile.

      Isn’t it funny that those three are all American, while Rihm is European?

      • Mikey says:

        I find it sad, and telling, that you would dismiss out of hand the music of Reich and Adams, implying that it does not bear comparison to the music of Rihm.

        The degree of pretentious superiority you display is staggering.

        • Olassus says:

          I have recordings of the music of Adams and Reich (not Glass) and listen to them occasionally. I have of course also attended performances of their music. I once took a trip with Adams.

          They are wonderful promoters of themselves. They interview well. They talk.

          But nobody is going to tell me they rank as the greatest American composers of this period, despite their celebrity, whereas Rihm is one of the finest musical minds in Europe.

          • Mikey says:

            Nobody is saying Reich and Adams are the greatest American composers of this period. However, your opinion of Rhim’s music remains your opinion and your evaluation. I’m sick of hearing musicologists tell us who among contemporary composers is great and who isn’t. I’m sick of people taking their opinions for fact.

            Like Rihm as a person, as a composer, his music, etc… all you want, but don’t let that give you permission to dismiss any other composers out of hand.

            Boringfileclerk’s (what a telling name) opinion that Glass isn’t “real music” is uncalled for. Besides, I highly doubt they have the required expertise to make that assessment.

            Why try to make an assessment in the first place, when we don’t have enough distance from the topic at hand? Just say you admire Rihm and his music. There’s absolutely no need to turn around and take advantage of the moment to try and invalidate any other composers. Besides, the wording of your comment smacks of Eurocentrist BS.

          • Olassus says:

            Boringfileclerk made a good point, and history will back her up.

        • boringfileclerk says:

          Mikey, I never once said Reich and Adams (either John) are bad composers. Only Glass.

          Reich can at least legitimately claim to have changed the direction of concert music early on in his career before he ran out of ideas. His early work will survive. The John Adams can both produce fine music, though not consistently so. I only wish both Adams’ music wasn’t so backward looking in their approach.

          Rhim, on the other hand, can claim to be the rightful heir to Beethoven and Mozart. Few can make this claim. History will be kind to Rhim and reward him with music that will be performed in perpetuity.

  • Richard Dubugnon says:

    please just get my recent Naxos CD and tell me what you think 🙂

    • John Borstlap says:

      Dubugnon takes the late Rihm tendency to revive earlier musical aesthetics many steps further and creates a renaissance of truly musical value.

      • Richard Dubugnon says:

        Thanks John, oh and yes, I do travel a lot … and am much more performed abroad than in my birth country 🙂 nobody’s a prophet !

        • John Borstlap says:

          I know…. Switzerland is like Holland, only with mountains. To demonstrate comparable mentalities: a Swiss orchestra recently rejected the proposal from their own principal conductor of a piece of mine, in spite of his enthusiasm – they had a committee. (‘A camel is an animal designed by a committee.)

          • Richard says:

            It sounds like a similar story I heard too many times… comitees made of ignorants … may I ask you more details ? You can send me an email

  • sorin says:

    a total bore – we are always in search of new excitements and willing to give a chance.
    rihm is a swete candidate – composed of the right stuff – but no creativity – numb patterns that last too long.
    no serious label records and nobody is willing to pay a dime for the rihm stuff.
    of course you’ll find rihm performances in deutschland – just as you find local-patriotic composers in every respected music hall – be it an adams in the us , a delius in liverpool and an “amazing” dutilleux in paris

    • John Borstlap says:

      In contrary, both Adams and Dutilleux travel a lot and can be heard all over the place. Dutilleux got premieres in the USA, for instance. And Delius is not even truly English, having lived in the USA and France and being played a lot in his own time in Germany. Rihm has been rather uninterestiung outside Germany for his lifelong obsession with easy expressionistic gestures without concern for the pitches, the gestures were supposed to be ’emotion’. But his later music is really different and this ‘Lichtes’ concerto is truly beautiful, and expressive. But of course, one needs some musical ears to hear that.

  • Fred says:

    Reger is very dull and slow. Brendel once said given the choice of playing his piano concerto or dying he preferred the latter!