FIRE, WATER, AIR
Jörg Widmann conducted. Jörg Widmann played the clarinet. Yes, obviously, Jörg Widmann composed the pieces. And finally, a few acronyms for you: BMC, BFO – GJ! A review by Dániel Mona, Playliszt blog.
In yet another bold undertaking, the Budapest Festival Orchestra did not hide contemporary piece(s) between two popular classics, but on 24 January they performed a full concert from the works of Jörg Widmann. Only 42, Widmann is already world famous both as a musician and as a composer. Even during the pre-concert conversations one could already feel that, despite Widmann’s music being rather ‘hardcore’, his inventive solutions and enthusiasm would make his compositions digestible and exciting. Alongside Dénes Várjon (the clarinettist’s old friend and chamber music partner) they created such a friendly, that’s to say music-friendly, atmosphere that afterwards a poor concert would have been truly disappointing.
One of Widmann’s compositional peculiarities is his use of instruments in both conventional and unconventional ways, and the mixture of the two playing styles. (I deliberately avoid the word improperly, for who can say how an instrument should be used?!) A prepared piano is more-or-less to be expected, but as the opening Liebeslied (love song) for Eight Instruments proves, it is far from banal. The alternating of conventional and prepared sounds, as well as the wide spectrum of the prepared strings, suggested that you do not necessarily need to develop a new technique in order to write unique, new, exciting music. The key is creativity, yet it is just as difficult to create something original within given confines as it is to take one’s courage in hand and be unusual, rule-breaking, innovative and ground-breaking. The same is true for the empty, silent blowing of wind instruments, and the loud clicking of their keys; neither of which are new musical devices, but because of their markedly heavy employment and contrasting placings against the rich orchestral textures, they never came across as ordinary.
I am speaking of devices that are heard often, in every one of Widmann’s works, yet they are not boring; in every movement there is some musical speciality. One major part of these specialities involves pushing the instruments to their limits, but the other part is pure creativity, the realisation of an imagined sound with actual instruments and conventional techniques. Like the Aria for Solo Horn. Lights go out in the BMC grand hall. A single soft lamp (at about 20% brightness) makes sure that we know our eyes are not closed. The horn sounds. There is a reason why Zoltán Szőke plays the horn – his playing is faultless, and instead of sharp, sudden air bombs it seems as if he sits every musical sound on a pillow of exhaling air, softly, as if they were a part of a process. A few sounds later there is a sudden change of tone while the last sound still echoes. A new phrase, and then, in two parts, two sounds are left hanging in the air. At this point the piece becomes suspicious… Is this pre-recorded? Or is there a way to produce two sounds with a single horn? Or perhaps someone is producing the echoes in the background? The solution is that the horn player is standing next to an open piano with a depressed sustain pedal, and as he blows the sounds he also vibrates the piano’s strings, complete with overtones. There are more-and-more sustained sounds hanging in the air, but by varying the intonation there are sounds that do not resonate against any of the piano strings. But all this doesn’t matter! The only thing that matters is that we are surrounded by complex, surprising, and not least, fascinating sounds. This is what I see, more or less, with my eyes open:
I close my eyes and I expect to see this:
But instead this is what greets me:
And during another part, with a different atmosphere, this:
At least, something along those lines. And even though I consider it great that, as opposed to a recording, during a live concert you can always see music being made, the method of ‘eyes closed – imagination open’ works remarkably well.
During the second half, after the piece for solo horn, we also got a Fantasie for solo clarinet, performed by the composer himself. Again, I can only really use words as expressions designed to fill-out reviews, but I ask that this time, please, you think about all of the phrases in their original and deepest, most positive sense. In both the technical and the characteristic sense of the word, Widmann’s solo performance was virtuosic. The performance emphasised the piece’s funny moments, the whole work was honest and made me believe that I was hearing an improvised fantasy. The Quintet, which consists of 18 small movements, proved to be the hardest for me to divulge and comprehend. I was, in all probability, not the only one whose attention began to waiver, but that only goes to show that there are (unreasonably) few concerts that truly move one’s mind. There was always something to marvel at – players striking their wind instruments, or the entry of the celesta – but because of their brevity the movements did not become part of a greater whole at first hearing.
However, the closing Dubairische Tänze (Dances of Dubai) did very much that. Widmann, who travelled to Dubai to find inspiration but could not get the Bavarian dances out of his head, composed an entertaining piece with a focus on waltzes / ländler, that binds the work together. Jeux d’eaux – says one movement of itself. After the energetic, fiery display of the Festival Orchestra’s musicians came the water… the percussionists who had worked hard all night gathered together for one movement, and calmly performed the beautifully-structured solo piece. They splashed their hands in water. That’s it. Around the middle of the piece. It was genius! The sound of water heralds an ancient elemental force that made me think it was a pity that it had been missing from concert halls up to now.
Jörg Widmann’s enthusiasm, vitality and love of life could be felt during the concert, but to make the works successful an excellent orchestra such as the BFO was indispensable. They worked together skilfully and luckily, and so the GJ at the beginning of the article is well deserved: Good Job!