Air [UK premiere]
Jörg Widmann in conversation with Tom Service
Musicians from the Royal Academy of Music [Michael Kidd (horn), Victoria Kerby (clarinet) & Timothy End (piano)] joined by Jörg Widmann (clarinet)
Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London
Con brio – a concert overture for orchestra [UK premiere]
Violin Concerto No.3 in G, K216
Symphony No.3 [1873 version, edited Nowak]
Arabella Steinbacher (violin)
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Christian Hoskins
Reviewed: 29 July, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
In addition to being professor of clarinet at the Freiburg Musikhochschule, a professional performing musician and an acclaimed composer, Jörg Widmann is a compelling public speaker. In response to Tom Service’s questions, the 36-year-old Bavarian’s answers were detailed and full of interesting asides, delivered with enthusiasm but also an attractive diffidence.
Widmann started learning the clarinet at the age of seven and the piano two years later. Composition lessons began at the age of eleven when he wanted to be able to notate his clarinet improvisations. As a solo performer, Widmann has had works written for him by Wolfgang Rihm and Aribert Reimann and his own output includes a large amount of chamber music, including a series of string quartets, as well a full-length opera, “Das Gesicht im Spiegel” (The Face in the Mirror).
Three chamber works were included in the Composer Portrait, starting with Air for solo horn, performed by Michael Kidd. Widmann describes the piece as a realisation of an imaginary primordial horn, influenced by his childhood near the Alps but also Weber’s Koncertstück for horn and orchestra. The eight-minute piece involves a myriad of calls, wails, growls and pauses.
The other two works were Fünf Bruchstücke for clarinet and piano, played by Victoria Kerby and Timothy End, and Fantasie for solo clarinet, played by Widmann himself. Both pieces make use of Widmann’s attraction to extremes of register, dynamics, timbre and note lengths, with Compact Disc cases placed on the piano strings for extra effect.
Widmann’s Con brio, the first item in the main Prom at the Royal Albert Hall, was commissioned by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra for the opening of its 2008/09 season, a concert which featured Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. Con brio jumps wildly between pastiches of Beethoven and passages which evoke twentieth-century composers such as Varèse or Ligeti, enlivened with such playful effects as loud puffing from the woodwinds and the timpani being struck on the side. The performance enjoyed the enthusiastic buy-in of the orchestra, although one was ultimately left wondering whether there was much substance to be found behind the work’s jaunty façade.
Arabella Steinbacher was the soloist in Mozart’s G major Violin Concerto, delivering an interpretation which was gentle and refined but ultimately too demure for a space as large as the Royal Albert Hall. Despite using a relatively large string section (founded on four double basses), Jonathan Nott’s accompaniment was similarly intimate. Antiphonal violins and fine woodwind playing were welcome features but were insufficient compensation for a performance which was short on projection.
Bruckner’s Third Symphony, available in multiple editions, presents the interpreter with a dilemma about which version to use. Traditionally, conductors have chosen to perform one of Bruckner’s revisions, but more recently a number of musicians have seen merit in the longer, original version from 1873, the version used and recorded by Nott.
With fine playing from all departments of the Bamberg Symphony, this was a highly articulate performance. On this showing, woodwind-playing appears to be a particular strength of the orchestra, but brass was also refulgent and the string-playing revealed inner voices which are often masked. Nott maintained a high level of tension, building powerful climaxes and highlighting the organ sonorities in Bruckner’s writing. At times, a degree of more elemental power would not have gone amiss, the scherzo in particular tending towards the well-mannered rather than the rambunctious.
Even with Nott’s eloquent performance, it was difficult to escape the feeling that Bruckner’s original finale spends a bit too much time alternating between the different thematic groups before the arrival of the magnificent coda. On the other hand, the symphony’s original version has some superb music which is lost from the later versions. The interpreter’s dilemma remains … and so does the listener’s.