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Jörg WIDMANN (b 1973)
Viola Concerto (2015) [28:02]
24 Duos for violin and cello (excerpts -arr Tamestit with viola) [10:48]
String Quartet No. 3 Jagdquartett (2003) [10:14]
Antoine Tamestit (viola)
Marc Bouchkov (violin)
Bruno Philippe (cello)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Daniel Harding
Signum Quartett (Florian Donderer, Annette Walther, violins; Xandi van Dijk, viola; Thomas Schmitz, cello)
rec 2016/17, Herkulessaal, Munich (Concerto); Teldex Studio, Berlin
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902268 [49:02]

Along with his contemporary Matthias Pintscher, Jörg Widmann is probably the best-known German composer of his generation on this side of the English Channel. Like Pintscher he is a conductor (currently Principal Guest Conductor of the Irish Chamber Orchestra, in fact) but he is probably even better known as one of the world’s foremost clarinettists, highly respected in romantic as well as contemporary repertoire. While there are undoubtedly stylistic correspondences in the music of Pintscher and Widmann, I would argue that the music of the past more infuses the latter’s music. In recent years his composing has begun to attract the attention of various record companies. Significant releases include his imposing purely orchestral Messe for ECM (ECM New Series 2110 - review here), an impressive Violin Concerto which seems to use the Berg concerto as a blueprint, superbly rendered for Ondine by Christian Tetzlaff and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding (ODE 1215-2) and his five string quartets with the Minguet Quartet on a Wergo twofer (WER 7316-2). I am happy to vouch for all of this music – it seems to me that Widmann approaches each new work with distinct and clear objectives, and while there is great variety in his output there is an identifiable Widmann style.

The viola concerto of 2015 represents a further refinement to this. It is blatantly and unashamedly theatrical. Widmann challenges our rigid preconceptions of the form by alluding to the ancient Latin derivation of the word concerto which synthesises two seemingly opposing ideas; conserere was the verb which meant ‘to join together’, but the noun certamen signifies ‘competition’. It is the latter of these two diametrically opposed ideas which dominates the first two thirds of Widmann’s work; consensus is only really achieved as it reaches its end. The concept here is of course pregnant with dramatic potential; the composer tailors his piece accordingly, to incorporate the physical and vocal gestures of the soloist. Nor does the violist stay in one place on the stage. The concerto is cast in five movements and was written for Antoine Tamestit, a lifelong friend and collaborator of the composer. He proves a suave and persuasive advocate of this superb piece.

The opening gesture involves the soloist hanging out unobtrusively in the orchestra and tapping his fingers on the viola’s fingerboard and chinrest, in the manner of a bored child irritating his parents by persistently tapping on the dinner-table. This ‘winds-up’ the orchestra to the point where twin bongo drums imitate the soloist in an exchange seemingly characterised by spite and annoyance. This ‘low-level’ conflict is the essential ‘seed’ from which the whole work will grow. There is a sense of very gradual awakening both in the orchestral material and in the solo work which is exclusively built around the percussive potential of the viola. There is no arco at all in the first movement until its final gesture. For this listener the material seems ‘pleasantly confrontational’ in the same way as Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto (which is actually on reflection rather more abrasive). There is much attractive glittering in the tuned percussion. At the outset of the Sehr langsam - calmo second movement the soloist finds a ‘soul-mate’ in the form of an orchestral bass-flute which in psychological terms provides a source of ‘social support’. The two instrumentalists seem to complete each other’s phrases; the bass-flute provides yearning, almost exotic harmonies for the viola. This music is sinuous and alluring, although the subtext seems to imply a more ominous undercurrent. Gradually the ravishing sounds Tamestit has been producing transform into more confrontational materials, rough-textured and microtonal. An enormous rumbling orchestral pedal adds to a sense of deep unease. Towards the end of the movement Tamestit vocalises in parallel with his viola.

We then move straight into a brief, fragmented and acerbic Poco vivo subito section dominated by the soloist; spare grumbling notes from the orchestra are akin to under-the-breath oaths and insults. This rapid passage culminates in a scream from the soloist and an orchestral implosion which morphs abruptly into a texturally rough Toccata for the viola punctuated by sforzando interjections from the brass. Then a huge gradual rising glissando in the solo viola seems to augur a mood of consensus and tranquillity before the outset of the finale. The mood now seems more tragic; although the opposing forces now seem to have found common ground, whereby the musical material is more obviously expressive and lyrical. At times Widmann’s writing recalls German antecedents – most noticeably Henze. The soloist seems to strive for the highest register of his instrument before returning to its heartland over washes of string counterpoint. At its conclusion this work brought to my mind another wonderfully theatrical viola concerto, that of Alfred Schnittke. Now the viola plummets to its deepest range before the work finally evaporates.

If this all makes the work sound diffuse, episodic and awkward, it is anything but. Moreover the three allusions I make to other composers and works are really only there to help provide a signpost for the reader. This is a wholly original, appealing work. If it’s a game of opposites Widmann ultimately pulls the threads together and achieves a sublime coherence. His viola concerto is, without question, a major work; it receives a blistering performance from Tamestit. Moreover, it goes without saying that the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra are completely onside throughout and led superbly by Daniel Harding in what is his second high-profile Widmann disc. The top-notch recording employs a vast dynamic range; while the loudest interjections are few and far between, listeners need to be wary of them – they are incendiary, colourful and recorded with surgical clarity. (Incidentally, as this is such a visual piece seeing a performance is instructive; readers can watch Tamestit’s incredible recent Frankfurt account via this link.)

The couplings provide an introduction to Widmann’s chamber music; perhaps another unrecorded orchestral work would have been better, especially since the brief Jagdquartett (Hunt Quartet) here receives its third recorded account. Having said that it’s an entertaining listen, built on the rhythms of the latter stages of the first movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony. Again it is heavily dependent on gesture; airy ‘whooshes’ as bows are brandished in the air; aggressive shouts of “Hail!!” suggest the thrill of the chase. While the pulse is broadly constant the musical material is by turn abrasive and raw. This Jagdquartett makes obvious allusions to the past but there is something gleefully wanton and uncompromising about it which ultimately places it squarely in the present. The Signum Quartet capture its ineffable spirit just as successfully as the Minguet Quartet did in their Wergo cycle. If anything the Harmonia Mundi recording is more ‘in your face’.

We are also treated to a selection from Widmann’s 24 Duos, originally scored for violin and cello. Tamestit has arranged 9 of these bagatelles for viola; four with violin and five with cello. These rarefied fragments contain music pared down to its barest bones and inevitably recall the aphorisms of Webern or more especially Kurtag. Most last less than a minute. The second piece here, a capriccio, has the manner of a strange folk dance. The ‘canto’ that follows is aria-like and expressive. The petit ballet mecanique recalls some of Ligeti’s piano etudes. The valse bavaroise takes a cheesy little waltz tune and subverts it with exaggerated, Schnittke-like irony. The final lamento with cello is, at three minutes, the longest piece; it’s extremely eerie, the (often microtonal) notes sound weird and ill-fitting; in common with much of Widmann’s music on this disc all is not as it seems.

Forget the short playing time on this disc; there is ample food for thought here. Harmonia Mundi are to be congratulated for issuing a disc of challenging, original music by a composer whom I feel sure will be played in 150 years time. I confidently predict that Widmann’s extraordinary viola concerto will swiftly become a repertoire staple. You read it here first.

Richard Hanlon



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