Jörg Widmann: Elegie (ECM New Series 2110)

Jörg Widmann

Jörg Widmann clarinet
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie
Christoph Poppen conductor
Messe and Elegie
Recorded June and July 2008, Congresshalle (Messe) and SR Studio 1 (Elegie), Saarbrücken
Engineers: Thomas Raisig and Thomas Becher
Fünf Bruchstücke
Recorded May 2009, Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal, WDR Funkhaus, Köln
Engineer: Günther Wollersheim
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

At 39, German composer and clarinetist Jörg Widmann has already established himself as a formidable talent. If his studies under Hans Werner Henze, Heiner Goebbels, and Wolfgang Rihm have left any noticeable influence in his work as composer, it’s the cellular approach at which he is so skillful. His experience as a performer with such ECM regulars as András Schiff, Kim Kashkashian, and Heinz Holliger, not to mention his sister, violinist Carolin Widmann, make him a natural fit for the label in both capacities. Though Widmann has been widely praised for his chamber works, on this survey we get only the Fünf Bruchstücke (1997) for clarinet and piano, and for which he is joined by none other than Mr. Holliger at the keyboard as he explores the extended capabilities of his instrument. His subtle clicks and arcing gestures provide the hum to the piano’s rattle at every turn. We feel these things and more scuttling just beneath the surface, holding on to sounds as idols of whimsy, each blown and deflated like a balloon that refuses to expand and will never know the catharsis of the pop. Among his first published pieces, they give us direct insight into his eclectic flourish…

(Photo by Felix Broede)

…and all the more so for nesting between two leviathan orchestral pieces. Played to astonishing effect by the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie under the baton of Christoph Poppen, his 2006 Messe buries us with immediate and bone-stressing volume, yet somehow retaining, not unlike the Dies irae from Arvo Pärt’s Miserere, the softness of a petal. This is the first of a handful of references, which would seem to include also Górecki’s Third Symphony (note the Contrapunctus I). These allusions are as robust as they are transient, rising as they do from an ocean of great depth and color. Even in the absence of words, the piece abounds with voices. Widmann’s string writing is patient and awakens by a lone violin, as quiet as the opening was loud. Pastoral cries from winds exhale in watery strains. Bows flicker through consciousness like dragonflies. Each step becomes a window of spiritual reflection, a string of dawns, ferocious as lions jumping from the sun. Swollen joints in the Trinitarian body find unconditional love in the crucifixion, sacrifice rendered divine and tipped by fingers of humility and faith. Shadow masquerades as light, and light blinds itself. Reaching the resurrection at last, a promise of life wraps itself in autumn before unfurling a banner of exodus beneath an all-seeing eye, within and without, everywhere and nowhere, in the glitter of the lachrymose.

The 2005 title composition stretches those tearful remainders into lenses of contact. Peering through contorted sighs and unspoken things, reeds, bellows, and high strings dance across a bridge of burning meteorites, each a needle without thread. An operatic current prevails. One can feel characters ambulating about the stage, hiding behind curtains and whispering erratic secrets into the spotlight, which stays lit even after the music ends.

If Widmann’s landscapes seem not so well defined, it is because his intentions (or so I imagine) forego the platitudes of anticipation in favor of an organic, distilled approach. Poppen brings precisely that feel of ebb and flow, drawing out from these performances a viscous and dynamic energy. Holliger’s involvement, too, is fortuitous, for here is a voice that, given time, might very well prove to be his equivalent.

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