Jörg WIDMANN (b. 1973)
Messe (2005)a [40:10]
Fünf Bruchstücke (1997)b [8:42]
Elegie (2006)c [18:43]
Jörg Widmann (clarinet)bc; Heinz Holliger (piano)b
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken/Christoph Poppenac
rec. Congresshalle, Saarbrücken, June 2008 (Messe); SR Studio 1, July 2008 (Elegie); Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal, WDR Funkhaus, Köln, May 2009 (Fünf Bruchstücke)
ECM NEW SERIES 2110 4763309 [67:57]

Trained as a clarinettist Jörg Widmann made quite a name for himself as a brilliant performer particularly of contemporary works for clarinet. I remember him performing a rather long clarinet quintet by Wolfgang Rihm during an Ars Musica festival in Brussels. However, over the last few years he has also made quite a reputation as a most distinguished composer with a pretty substantial output to his credit. His status as a composer has also been emphasised by a couple of discs entirely devoted to his music. Some of his chamber works are available on Wergo WER 6555-2 whereas his five string quartets (so far) are available on MDG 307 1531-2. The present disc is mostly devoted to two recent orchestral works and to a somewhat earlier chamber piece. It thus allows for a good, if inevitably sketchy appraisal of his musical progress so far.

Fünf Bruchstücke for clarinet and piano is an earlyish work displaying a number of modern playing techniques. These five short, epigrammatic pieces are obviously designed to display both the compositional imagination of the composer and the technical assurance of the performer, who in this case are a one and same. As already mentioned these short movements explore a number of new techniques while imbuing them with some unquestionable expressive strength. By the way, the present performance is Heinz Holliger’s debut as pianist!

The quite imposing Messe for large orchestra is the third part of a large-scale symphonic trilogy in which the orchestra is treated as if it were singing. The other parts are Lied (2003) and Chor (2004). I wish that these were available on disc too. This is a wordless mass that Paul Griffiths compares to Britten’s Sinfonia da requiem or Henze’s own instrumental Requiem (actually a series of chamber concertos) to which one could add Tiensuu’s second clarinet concerto Missa (2007 – available on Ondine ODE 1166-2 that I reviewed here a few months ago). The weight of this large-scale work clearly rests on the long Kyrie playing for more than twenty minutes and falling into a number of sub-sections of which the first Introitus Monodia (Sequenza a una voce) is by far the longest. The rest of the movement alternates shorter sections (Interludium I, II and III) and two contrapuntal sections (Contrapuntus I and II). Introitus opens with a massive, rather ominous chiming that eventually dissolves into a lonely solo violin. A distant trumpet launches the main body of the movement (Monodia) in which a long line moves from one instrument or group of instruments to another. It encompasses all the orchestral registers from deep bass sounds to high violins and piccolos. The rest of the movement consists of an alternation of short interludes and contrapuntal sections. The Gloria is somewhat simpler in structure since it falls into two fairly short sections Antiphon (Echo-Choral) and Contrapuntus III. The last movements Crucifixus and Et Resurrexit, too, are structurally simpler. Crucifixus is a single movement sort of tone-poem suggesting rather than depicting Golgotha. The final movement opens with Contrapuntus IV and moves on to the closing section Exodus, a powerful crescendo bringing this impressive work to its equally impressive conclusion. Messe is, no doubt about it, an imposing achievement. I suppose that some might find it either a tad too long for its own good or somewhat uneven. While some of these criticisms might be true, this is a deeply sincere and strongly expressive work that clearly deserves wider exposure.

Elegy for clarinet and orchestra may seem modest by comparison, but this is yet another work in which one hears a composer who obviously has things to say and knows how to say them best. The work opens and closes in clear elegiac mood, but the core of the work is tense and troubled. It, too, makes quite an impression in spite – or because – of its comparative concision. The music makes its point directly without any undue fuss. I find it fairly gripping and it deserves to be heard more often.

All three works receive authoritative performances that have been nicely recorded. Paul Griffiths’ excellent notes also deserve special mention. In short, this superb release is clearly up to ECM’s best standards. It is also the best introduction possible to Widmann’s sound-world and the one to begin with if you are still unfamiliar with his music.

Hubert Culot

This superb release is the best introduction possible to Widmann’s hugely personal sound-world.