Messe. Fünf Bruchstücke.
Christoph Poppen, cond;
Jörg Widmann (cl);
Heinz Holliger (pn); Deutsche RPh
ECM 476 3309 (67:57)
I’ve noticed the emergence of a number of quite brilliant younger German and Austrian composers who are also exceptional performers, and who have established their credentials through those chops, giving them access to a high echelon of fellow performers who respect their overall musicianship. Thomas Larcher and Moritz Eggert are masterful pianists, and now to their ranks we should add Jörg Widmann (b. 1973). He’s a clarinetist, and from the evidence of this disc, a virtuosic one. But he’s also a composer with a genuine depth and ambition to which I respond.
The magnum opus on this program is the
(2005), a sprawling work over a half hour long for orchestra, which is an evocation of the Latin Mass, but without any text. Opening (and closing) with a Mahlerian blaze of traditional chorale progressions surrounded by a whirl of extended harmonies, it subsides into a lengthy
, i.e., a single line that is constantly passed between instruments or groups, creating a constantly shifting coloration of the line. These alternate with concise and somewhat austere contrapuntal passages. There are memorable passages elsewhere (I think particularly a section of the “Crucifixus,” tiny, distant nocturnal sounds, shaved-to-the-bone). What I admire about the music is Widmann’s willingness to take risks. He dares to write music that is simple texturally and direct (and also brilliantly orchestrated). It seems deeply felt and heard. It can move from real intimacy to expansive statement. I’m reminded in particular in this work of certain pieces by Sofia Gubaidulina, as it has a similar intensity and deals with a kind of mystical but humanistic liturgy.
(Five Fragments) of 1997 are far more compressed, a series of gnomic essays with high contrasts in every musical parameter from one to the next. It also features the oboist Heinz Holliger in his recorded debut as a pianist, and he’s a knockout, demonstrating what a polymathic musician he is (I’ve been very impressed over the years by his compositions as well). The 2006
for clarinet and orchestra, even though brilliantly rendered by Widmann (and Poppen), is for me the least compelling piece here. At any given moment it satisfies with dramatic gestures and beautiful sounds, but the perpetual “song” of the clarinet strikes me as somewhat meandering. The one truly notable thing (also evident in the other music) is Widmann’s love of microtonality; he makes quarter-tones sound truly expressive and necessary to his musical argument.
Like many of his generation, Widmann is of the “back to Berg” school. But unlike some (think Rihm), there’s more restraint here, and the music doesn’t sound like a desperate bid to resuscitate early 20th-century Expressionism. Instead, Berg is tempered by Webern, and there’s also an understanding of the explorations of pure sound and noise (think Lachenmann) that have distinguished German music over the past couple of decades. Ultimately this is an impressive portrait of a composer who has something to say, real technique, good aesthetic and dramatic instincts, and courage. Not a bad start.