Entitled Stay Here and Keep Watch With Me, yesterday the Easter Festival of Sacred Music offered another concert in the Church of St. Augustine. To perform his Vigil for Six Voices and Instrumental Ensemble Wolfgang Rihm invited to the festival two renowned German ensembles - Ensemble Musikfabrik and the vocal sextet Singer Pur - for which the work was composed. The conductor Christian Eggen was responsible for a bravura performance of this extremely harrowing piece.
In recollecting Holy Week Wolfgang Rihm selected a musical setting of the liturgical texts of the Holy Triduum, which gave it an unfathomably deep imprint, an astringent character and powerful momentum. The form of his Vigil is based on the alternation of instrumental sonatas and sung motets. At the same time in the fabric of the composition the sonatas have a bridging character between the offered texts, a space for their resonance and contemplation. In their musical setting Rihm then achieves truly harrowing testimony. His music freezes and disconcerts, blows from the percussion often frighten us and shake even the solid walls of the church. The use of diminished chords explains the tremendous anxiety, which is achieved by sensitive notes, while never running to comforting harmony. The character of the instrumentation and sung effects strictly follows the texts, which consist of fragments of the passion. In the instrumental Introitus to the Velum templi scissum est for example the melodies suggest a ruptured temple curtain with rumbling wind instruments and percussion.
Conductor Christian Eggen placed the orchestra and organ against each other so that the majority of the performers remained before the altar. But some of them were placed in the choir, allowing the scoring of the work in the tenser passages to cut through beneath the ceiling arch of the church. The instrumental and vocal ensemble actually came together in the final Miserere. And although the volume of instruments was very often on the edge, it never drowned out the singers or caused their parts to lose their importance. Throughout the vocal lines remained extremely challenging, especially in terms of intonation. The ensemble Singer Pur however performed them cleanly and with certainty. At the same time the singers were not afraid to use the rawness of their voices, which was in part predetermined by their exposure, especially in the tenor parts. Such an impressive performance could perhaps only have been improved by slightly more precise articulation, especially on such a broad canvas where there were some syllables missing. Equally difficult rhythmically were the instrumental parts for the lower strings and wind instruments. The Conductor Christian Eggen however held the ensemble together with extraordinary certainty, supreme engagement and sovereignty devoid of any pomp.
Rihm’s vigil is not something we would describe as "pretty music." And nor should it be. A certain unpleasantness, anxiety and inner disturbance suits the text and in the context of Holy Week is actually desirable. Yesterday, this work was performed by both ensembles in an excellent and faultless performance.
Stay Here and Keep Watch. Wolfgang Rihm: Vigil for Six Voices and Instrumental Ensemble. Singer Pur (Germany), Ensemble Musikfabrik (Germany). Christian Eggen – Conductor. Easter Festival of Sacred Music 2018, 27 March, Church of St. Augustine in Brno.