In concert – Jörg Widmann, CBSO – Weber, Widmann & Beethoven 7th symphony

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Jörg Widmann (clarinet)

Weber (arr. Widmann) Clarinet Quintet in E flat major J182 (1815, arr. 2018)
Widmann Con Brio (2008); Drei Schattentänze (2013)
Beethoven Symphony no.7 in A major Op. 92 (1812)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 10 May 2023

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Jörg Widmann has enjoyed a productive association with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, having been Artist in Residence during the 2018/19 season, and tonight’s concert was typical with its playing to his strengths as composer, clarinettist and (by no means least) conductor.

Arranger, too, given this programme commenced with his take on Weber’s Clarinet Quintet. Most ambitious of its composer’s works for Heinrich Baermann, it demonstrably gains from receiving a concertante treatment. The interplay between clarinet and strings pointed up the acute contrasts of mood and motion in the initial Allegro, then transformed the Fantasia into an operatic ‘scena’ of sustained plangency. With its ‘capriccio presto’ marking and teasingly playful manner, no movement could be less like a Menuetto than the scherzo which follows; here and in the final Rondo, Widmann summoned a tensile virtuosity paying dividends in the latter’s impetuous course to a thrilling denouement. Having given us Weber’s ‘Third Clarinet Concerto’, maybe Widmann could add a Fourth by transforming the Grand Duo Concertant?

The stage was reset for Con Brio, most often played of Widmann’s orchestral works and (in other contexts) a curtain-raiser bar none. Commissioned to accompany Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies in a cycle by Mariss Jansons with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, it alludes to both pieces while casting an ear – sometimes facetious, always provocative – over two centuries of European art-music. Whether Widmann hears this as running on borrowed time, the closing bars do not so much resolve as atrophy via a break-down of graphic intent.

A darkened stage greeted listeners after the interval, across which was placed the music for each of Widmann’s Three Shadow Dances. These combine extended clarinet techniques with engaging, often playful virtuosity – moving (right to left) from the deadpan jazz gestures of ‘Echo-Tanz’, through the submerged remoteness (with no electronic treatment) of ‘(Under) Water Dance’, to the uproarious routines of ‘Danse africaine’ where the instrument becomes its own percussion outfit as it bounds towards the ‘elephant calls’ that signify its conclusion.

It made sense to round off the evening with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, having already been anticipated in the first half. In his opening remarks, Widmann spoke of the life-changing effect this work had at first hearing, and he duly threw caution to the wind with a reading that brimmed over with the excitement of new discovery. Surprisingly, he chose not to divide the violins right and left, as this would have emphasized their dizzying antiphonal exchanges in the outer movements. Having set a challengingly fast tempo for the scherzo, which the CBSO met with assurance, he might profitably have held back marginally for the greater part of the finale – enabling the coda to ‘take off’ with a frisson as could only be inferred here. This was otherwise a performance that conveyed the music’s visceral essence with thrilling immediacy.

It set the seal on an impressive showing for Widmann and this orchestra, who will hopefully be working together again in a future season. Next week sees the CBSO reunited with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla for a performance of Mahler’s decidedly non-valedictory Tenth Symphony.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website – and for specific information on Mirga conducting Mahler, click here. There are several sites to visit for more info on Jörg Widmann – click here for his official site, here for his profile at publisher Schott Music, and here for information from his management at HarrisonParrott

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