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Jörg WIDMANN (b. 1973)
Polyphone Schatten , for viola, clarinet and orchestral groups (2001) [13:12]
Drittes Labyrinth, for soprano and orchestral groups (2013-14) [46:36]
Jörg Widmann, clarinet; Christophe Desjardins, viola; Sarah Wegener, soprano
WDR Sinfonieorchester/ Heinz Holliger (Polyphone) Emilio Pomarico
rec. 2002/14, Philharmonie, Köln, Germany
Text not included
WERGO WER7369-2 [59:48]

Here we have another Widmann issue in what could be seen (in terms of commercial recordings at least) as his breakthrough year – indeed this is the third disc of his music I have reviewed in 2018, while another is in the pipeline. In Pia Steigerwald’s occasionally perplexing notes, she identifies overlaps between the two works presented here. Both pieces are drawn from larger cycles and each draws on extra-musical content. Moreover in both cases Widmann deploys his orchestral forces quite unconventionally.

Polyphone Schatten (Polyphonic Shadows) is essentially early Widmann, indeed Wergo’s recording here dates from 2002, and is scored for solo clarinet (his own instrument – he plays it here) and viola and an adapted orchestra shorn of high strings, double reeds and percussion. It’s the second part of his Lichtstudie cycle in which the composer attempts to translate the properties of light (e.g. perspective, colour) into sound. An example of this could be the ‘flageolet’ sounds Widmann seeks to elicit in his writing for Christophe Desjardins’ viola, which I suppose could be perceived as almost accidental ‘tricks of the light’. It is these isolated sounds which open the work, and I suspect an unwary listener would be unlikely to work out that these sounds do indeed come from a viola. The fragmented notes and gestures that emerge seemingly piecemeal at first from the solo instruments gradually seem to ‘wake’ up the other players, whose pointillistic, percussive interjections eventually coagulate into something one might recognise as an orchestra. This short, challenging piece is ineffably colourful and inhabits a world of its own, while the writing for the soloists sounds challenging in the extreme, notwithstanding the fact that the composer himself is the clarinettist in this performance. As the piece proceeds, the gestures of the low strings and brass become increasingly monolithic, providing a dark backdrop whose shadows the soloists strive to counter. The last two minutes of the piece are deeply impressive: a rising scale which slowly increases in intensity and bite in the orchestra, while the solo viola and its orchestral counterparts strive gamely for seemingly unattainable heights. At least I think they are violas; Steigerwald’s notes initially refer to the absence of violins from Widmann’s orchestra, but at the conclusion of her analysis of Polyphone Schatten she alludes to “first violins….continuing up the imaginary stairway”. I have dutifully tried to find full details of the scoring on both the composer’s website and that of his publisher, but both merely refer to the aforementioned ‘orchestral groups’ rather than to their precise constitution. The recording from 2002 makes a terrific impact, especially since the piece relies greatly on sounds which border on inaudibility but actually emerge with surprising fidelity.

Drittes Labyrinth is of more recent provenance (2014), a huge piece for soprano and orchestral groups which as its title suggests makes up the third panel of Widmann’s ‘Labyrinth’ cycle of pieces. The conceit of this work, as the listener understands it, is that the ‘labyrinth’ constitutes the huge, almost unwieldy orchestra and its setting (the hall), through which the soprano soloist literally moves. In fact the layout of the orchestral groups in the case of this work is made much plainer in the notes than was the case for its coupling. In the centre is a large group of what one might consider ‘strummed ‘instruments; harps, guitars, a pair of cimbaloms, a zither. They are surrounded by a large string orchestra while groups of wind and percussion comprise the outer ‘layer’. Two grand pianos are also placed either side of the stage. I have remarked in these pages previously about the ‘theatrical’ element which is so often evident in Widmann’s music; in Drittes Labyrinth the soprano is seated among the audience to start with before eventually moving around the hall prior to joining the musicians on stage. As Widmann has imagined it this ‘journey’ parallels that of a chimera navigating an imaginary labyrinth. This device characterises what presumably makes the live experience of Widmann’s music so different from hearing it on disc.

Individual pizzicato fragments are released from a quiet cloud of strings before more aggressive shards and broken noises break free. Disconnected strummings, bowings, sul ponticello noises and strange, unrecognisable textures permeated by percussive ‘splats’ and tiny high string glissandi coalesce into an eerie maze of sound. There are odd breathing noises and quasi-vocal sounds – are these from instruments, players, or the soprano? The note describes these events as a ‘quiet exposition’; I would argue it is more eventful than this implies. The noises produced certainly evoke some weird kind of living organism although in fact the soprano Sarah Wegener doesn’t enter the soundscape until around the eight minute mark, with some rather disconnected, expressionistic ‘humming’ delivered from her berth in the middle of the audience. As the work proceeds it becomes clear that the strings are directed to play more or less exclusively col legno saltando, a technique which involves the bow to be sort of ‘bounced’ staccato against the strings to create the kind of ‘flageolet’ sounds I referred to earlier in this review. At around the quarter hour mark the cimbaloms, zithers and, I suspect, the pianos combine to build a terrifying crescendo with strings and percussion which abates with a relatively conventional soprano coloratura figure over one of the cimbaloms. Any listeners approaching this piece having heard some of Widmann’s more lyrically-tinged compositions need to be warned – much of Drittes Labyrinth inhabits a sound world perhaps more obviously redolent of composers such as Helmut Lachenmann and Georg Friedrich Haas. The instruments in the large ensemble here are clearly instructed to deploy a wealth of extended techniques, while the repertory of devices incorporated in Sarah Wegener’s vocal part include literally everything between barely audible breath noises and hysterical shrieking. Having provided that caveat I must confess found the piece utterly compelling. While there are fleeting episodes of incandescent beauty (mostly involving the exotic instruments employed) they are few and far between; an example occurs toward the end of the work – (at track 9) an oddly elegiac string-led passage builds, above which Wegener floats a gorgeous, erotically-tinged vocalise. What consistently impresses is Widmann’s astonishing command of such unwieldy and diverse forces and the expressive variety Wegener manages to project throughout her largely wordless role. While it’s a challenging work it’s certainly not impenetrable. The WDR Symphony Orchestra perform heroically under contemporary music stalwart Emilio Pomarico. The recording leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. To my ears Drittes Labyrinth provides yet more evidence of Widmann’s versatility as a composer and his complete mastery of orchestral sound. It is a big work which richly rewards repeated listening, and it concludes a disc that both challenges and absorbs.

Richard Hanlon


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