The extremely prolific Wolfgang Rihm is a leading German contemporary composer who combines contemporary techniques with the emotional sturm und drang of Mahler and the late romantics in a relatively accessible, though undeniably modern language. His music is as such often taken to represent a reaction to the relative sterility of, say, Boulez or the uncompromising modernity of Lachenmann, although in reality his style is more a continuation of the styles of these composers (the music is for instance obviously strongly indebted to Lachenmann) than a break.
I am not sure that this disc is the best place to sample his music, however - the music on this disc is enjoyable enough, sometimes stirring, but often comes across as more gimmicky than substantial, not always inviting repeated listening. Gejagte Form dates from 1995-96 and is probably the most interesting single work here. It starts out as a frenzied race, but constantly takes unexpected turns, doubles back on itself, is interrupted by details and finds itself in different places than one would have thought it would be - whenever a clear path seems to lay ahead, the piece is nudged off in a slightly different direction. It is quite enjoyable and deftly constructed without necessarily being a modern masterpiece. Verborgene Formen takes up many of the same structural ideas, but is more introvert and mystical and, frankly, less interesting (quite simply, I suppose, because Rihm's music relies so heavily on surface excitement rather than genuinely strong thematic or structural ideas) - it is still more than worth hearing, however.
Whereas the Formen-pieces utilize the whole 24-strong ensemble of Klangforum Wien, Chiffre 1 is scored for piano and seven instruments. It is relatively short, rather abrasive and rough-hewn, based on a repeated piano figure. I failed to find the heads or tails of this one, but insofar as it is the introduction to the Chiffre cycle it might make more sense in the context of the whole cycle. It is followed on this disc by the second installment, Silence to be beaten, whose overall theme is momentum. Given Rihm's general ability to generate surface excitement, one would think this should have been a success. And it is indeed rather fun, with its quirky, syncopated rhythms which finally settles on a steady, accelerating pulse. But it also sounds a little gimmicky with the long period of silence and gradual reappearance of the music (apparently the silences to be beaten).
I have no qualms about the performances - they sound excellent to me, although I haven't heard any alternatives to compare them to. Still I am not sure how well this disc works as an introduction to the composer; maybe the disc from Deutsche Gramophon containing the whole Formen cycle might be a better option (I have not heard it) - certainly I am more inclined to seek out this than the Chiffre cycle. Still, this disc deserves a firm enough recommendation, despite it's stingy 47 minutes of total playing time - this is contemporary music with a smile, without necessarily being too compromising.