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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Overture ‘The Hebrides’ (Fingal’s Cave) Op 26 (1832) [9:39]
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, ‘Scottish’, Op 56 (1842) [39:19]
Jörg WIDMANN (b. 1973)
180 Beats per Minute, for string sextet (1993) [5:11]
Fantasie, for clarinet solo (1993) [7:51]
Irish Chamber Orchestra/Jörg Widmann (clarinet)
rec 2014-17, University Concert Hall & ICO Studio, Limerick, Ireland
ORFEO C945181A [62:04]

Apart from being a fine composer Jörg Widmann is a renowned clarinettist and in recent years has been in demand as a conductor. He has forged a particularly fruitful association with the Limerick-based Irish Chamber Orchestra; indeed, he is now one of two ‘Principal Artistic Partners’ (essentially Joint Principal Conductors – the other is Gábor Tákacs-Nagy). The present issue is the third (and last) release in a series from Orfeo which juxtaposes the orchestral symphonies of Mendelssohn (i.e. not the second) alongside works by Widmann himself. His stated aim is for listeners to better appreciate the modernity Mendelssohn’s masterpieces must have projected to contemporary audiences almost two centuries ago by emphasising their commonalities with his own music. In this case I think the idea works well – neither of the two Widmann pieces offers anything that will frighten the horses and both are cleverly programmed to best draw out these overlaps.

We begin in August 1829, on the eve of the twenty-year-old Mendelssohn’s voyage to Staffa, and the famous greeting he sent to his father. This contained the raw material for the theme he would use at the outset of his great Hebrides Overture to depict the motion of the slate-grey waves surrounding the islands. This melody would be refined and the work completed the following year. Widmann leads a bracing account, the lean textures of the reduced orchestra appropriately rawer and more rough-hewn than is the norm, though by the end the waves have clearly calmed down a little, and the sunlight appears to be peeping through the clouds. The ICO might not use period instruments but the textures they produce at times evoke them. Nor does Widmann hang about – the timing is given as 9:39 which is quicker than most of the competition; while the playing is swift, it is fluent and the performance is tautly conceived, the phrasing crisply articulated and at no stage does it appear rushed.

Nor does the pace sag in the following work, Widmann’s 180 Beats per Minutes scored for an unconventional string sextet with one less viola and one extra cello. The title gives the clue and nods to the Berlin techno-scene that Widmann embraced as a student. One overlap is that this is the stuff he was writing at the same age that Mendelssohn wrote his overture. This brief work is also a study of motion, albeit one buzzing with a perhaps more agitated, restless energy. The raw melodic and rhythmic materials exude a rather Bartókian atmosphere while the odd constitution of the ensemble comes into its own at 2:11 when an oddly sinuous viola solo takes centre stage punctuated by thickets of rumbling bass in the three cellos. The intricate canon towards the end of the work is as exhilarating for the listener as it must be to play. 180 Beats per Minute is raw, rapid and bursting at the seams with kinetic allure. Clearly the younger Widmann was in as much of a hurry to go places as his illustrious 19th century compatriot.

The Orfeo notes reveal that a seminal experience in Widmann’s teenage years was his first concert experience of the music of Pierre Boulez. This was the IRCAM pioneer’s Dialogue de l’ombre double for clarinet and live electronics. Widmann is quoted thus: “I followed the concert open-mouthed, as others do their first pop concert” It later inspired Widmann, still only 20, to write his virtuosic Fantaisie for solo clarinet, which he plays next. This is a virtuoso showpiece which gets truly into its stride after a tentative first half dominated by multiphonics and siren-like glissandi. Widmann obviously knows his own piece but what phenomenal control he displays across its extreme dynamic contrasts! The rapid figurations that dominate the second section incorporate elements of folk music, percussion, Rhapsody in Blue (perhaps inevitably) and free-jazz. The work demonstrates a truly impressive grasp of the instrument’s potential and range by any composer’s standards, let alone one of such tender years.

Moreover, the juxtaposition with the woodwind-dominated opening of the ‘Scottish’ Symphony works much better than many readers might imagine. The sound of the clarinet per se often triggers darkly romantic associations, in this case it connects to the Ossianic world beloved of many creative artists working in Northern Europe during the 1830s-40s. It is clear that Widmann adores the music of Mendelssohn, those plaintive opening wind phrases are sculpted so lovingly, and with such clarity; the viola-tinged inner details emerge most tellingly. These dark colours typify the sound of a chamber orchestra, but the weight of the ICO’s playing is more than apt for this work while the group’s smaller scale affords Widmann a greater degree of control and in turn the opportunity to interpret rather than simply play the symphony. As the first movement hits its stride in the Allegro un poco agitato Widmann takes the composer at his word, maintaining a steady pulse, albeit one that leaves plenty of room for the whimsies of Mendelssohn’s expressive intention.

The Vivace non troppo is crisp and sprightly, played with a rollicking vigour which reminded me a little of Thomas Fey’s sparkling account with the Heidelberger Sinfoniker on Hänssler Classic (HAEN98552). The ambiguous Adagio constitutes the romantic core of the symphony and Widmann navigates its path between darkness and light rather tentatively. The lovely melody at its outset sounds especially Mahlerian, while the competing funeral march is pitched just short of harsh and oppressive. Widmann ensures that the pointed, if somewhat non-confrontational martial rhythms of the finale provide an apt counterweight to the Scotch-snaps of the scherzo. This finale is fleet and agile, the playing again alert and crisp. The transition to A major at the onset of the Maestoso coda is sensitively played and expertly managed.

These are satisfying, insightful accounts of Mendelssohn’s Ossian-inspired masterpieces. It’s not a competition at the end of the day and there are many other fine accounts of these works. What matters is that Widmann certainly has something to say about them and these accounts deserve to be heard on their own terms. Throughout, he favours a chamber-like approach which ultimately illuminates the finer details of Mendelssohn’s masterly orchestration. The playing of the Irish Chamber Orchestra is first-class and the recording is spacious and elegantly balanced. Prospective purchasers should not be put off by the inclusion of Widmann’s own youthful confections. Both are attractive, unusual and brief, and provide an invigorating contrast to the Mendelssohn works.

Richard Hanlon



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