Fantaisie for Clarinet
String Quartet No.8 [New York premiere]
Fremde Szene III
Alessio Bax (piano), Jörg Widmann (clarinet), and Daedalus Quartet [Min-Young Kim & Ara Gregorian (violin), Jessica Thompson (viola) & Raman Ramakrishnan (cello)]
Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette
Reviewed: 3 February, 2011
Venue: Rose Studio, Lincoln Center, New York City
This packed-to-capacity “New Music in the Rose” program included works by two German composers and an American. Before the concert began it was announced that the series would be moved to the larger Rose Penthouse venue next season.
Jörg Widmann has the big, warm sound one has come to expect from central European clarinetists and technique to burn. He’s not only one of the instrument’s dominant virtuosos, but also a composer in the European cosmopolitan avant-garde style. The sustained multiphonic note at the opening of his Fantaisie for Clarinet points the way quasi-tonally toward its end, functioning as a structural unifier. The work progresses through stretches of fast, filigree passages, plenty of glissandos and pitch variations, and timbral transformations – all suffused with playfulness and piquant wit. I hope more top-tier players will add it to their repertoire.
American composer Richard Wernick won the Pulitzer Prize in 1977 for “Visions of Terror and Wonder”, an impressive work for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. I was underwhelmed by his String Quartet No.8, in which dissonant and quasi-tonal sections collide with each other through the course of a traditional four-movement structure – until the sustained tonal section of the finale, when a beautiful, meditative passage seems to come out of nowhere and makes the remainder of the work a real attention-grabber. The members of the Daedalus Quartet, for which this work was written, have been playing together for a little under a decade, and with a new second violinist for about a year, but have a tonal unanimity and precise ensemble comparable to more seasoned quartets. I’d like to hear these musicians tackle some Elliott Carter.
The most interesting work was Wolfgang Rihm’s Fremde Szene III (Strange Scene III) for piano trio. Unlike the Wernick, there seemed to be some genuine melodic direction from the soft bed of string harmonics and piano chords that dominate the first section of the work, music that eventually gives way to a hyper-exaggerated Schumannesque march in the piano, accompanied by declamatory chords from the violin and cello. Alessio Bax made the most of the piano part’s over-the-top grandeur and over-ripe melodicism, and both Min-Young Kim and Raman Ramakrishnan seemed to enjoy putting a funhouse mirror to heart-on-sleeve romanticism.
Like the Rihm, Widmann’s Fieberphantasie (Fever Fantasy) for bass clarinet/clarinet, string quartet, and piano was inspired by music of Schumann – and is as imposing and grim a work as Widmann’s Fantaisie is charming. Large blocks of sound in sometimes thick, granitic, imposing clusters give way to apprehensive, furtive melodic figures inspired by the opening gesture of Schumann’s Violin Sonata No.1, but clearly out of place in a soundworld in which unpredictable textures and timbres predominate, particularly the col legno effects.
Widmann had also been scheduled to play in Jukka Tiensuu’s Le Tombeau de Mozart for clarinet, violin and piano, but that performance was canceled. I am looking forward to hearing this series in the bigger and more acoustically inviting performance space.