It’s the Jörg Widmann Show!

CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★

Strap on your safety belts and get ready to go,” Jörg Widmann advised us just before the start of a snorting, roaring performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. In the tumultuous finale the CBSO, under the impish lavishly talented clarinet virtuoso, composer and conductor, invited us to go to the edge of this musical maelstrom and peer over the edge. Every accent was triple underlined, decorum trampled underfoot, any vestige of classical equipoise battered into oblivion as the first and second fiddles – sadly not antiphonally divided, a trick missed by Widmann – rocketed their responses back and forth. Wagner described this symphony as “the apotheosis of the dance”, if so it was danced by the Maenads before they ripped Orpheus to shreds. Mightily exciting, if short on nobility and grandeur: heavy metal Beethoven and worthy of Weber’s judgment, quoted by Widmann, that the finale showed Beethoven was “ripe for the madhouse”.

Despite Widmann’s generous praise of the orchestra, the hall and the enthusiastic audience – “We’re nothing without you,” – the evening had the feel of the type of one-man show the all-round variety entertainers of yesteryear used to mount. First we had Widmann the clarinet ace in a delightful performance of Weber’s Clarinet Quintet in an arrangement for orchestra; nothing complex, just a couple of dozen string players. It easily outshines Weber’s actual concertos and was buffed-up beautifully by Widmann who was sensitive to its many moods. It was easy to imagine the second movement ‘Fantasia’ as a pensive moonlight operatic aria; one could almost hear Agathe in ‘Der Freischütz’ – with Widmann’s clarinet as a magically transformed Gundula Janowitz. If the ‘Minuet’ title was serious then it was a dance for fairies, sprites and flibbertigibbets with Widmann as Puck leading a sprightly CBSO in the revels.

Widmann quickly changed hats and here he was as composer, ‘Con brio’ takes the scores of Beethoven’s seventh and eighth symphonies, shreds them, throws the bits into the air, leaves them out in the rain until the ink smears and smudges and then reassembles the fragments. Widmann is no po-faced avant-garde bore, he’s a man with a wry sense of humour who enjoys some musical fun. There’s also a terrific timpani part, played with gusto by Matthew Hardy. The dazzling virtuoso (and leg-puller) were both evident in Widmann’s ‘Three Shadow Dances’ for solo clarinet. The ‘(Under) Water Dance’ – with Widmann bathed in a mauve spotlight – was seductive and eerily beautiful while the ‘Danse africaine’ saw Widmann revamping the clarinet as a percussion instrument. Who could resist his final trumpeting “elephant calls”?

Norman Stinchcombe

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