On Thursday, September 25th, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra opened the 2008/2009 Season with two Beethoven symphonies, preceded by the world premiere of a commissioned overture by Jörg Widmann. For Beethoven they chose the ‘sister symphonies’ Seven and Eight, and beautiful and eager orchestral playing was notable right from the explosive opening F-major bars of the Eighth.
Audibly happy to start the new season and to play under their music director Mariss Jansons again (after a long summer of accompanying competition concerts), the BRSO tore into the music with élan, a lean sound, and refreshing vigor. Jansons presented the type of modern Beethoven interpretation that incorporates the best ideas of the Historically Informed Performance school with the best sound of the modern symphony orchestra: full of energy and with dynamism that makes these performances sound so exciting. Think of recent recordings by Osmo Vänskä, Paavo Järvi, or Thomas Dausgaard as exemplars. The symphonies end up sounding classical in perception rather than late romantic, without pretending to be Haydn.
Jansons’ straight-laced and straightforward Eighth had nothing of the burnished and indulgently shaped qualities that his neighbor at the Munich Philharmonic, Christian Thielemann, might have brought to it. Judging from the applause, most in the audience were taken away by the verve of this reading – though a few probably wouldn’t have minded a bit more mellowness especially in the opening Allegro vivace e con brio.
The more popular and less demanding Seventh in F-major, the bigger sister of the brilliant and clever Eighth, got a more conventional treatment from Jansons, less fiery and only occasionally updated with sharp accentuations of small phrases. From the bold Poco sostenuto – Vivace to the tender, familiar Allegretto, the impetuous Menuetto and the driven but meaty finale (Allegro con brio), the high general standard one can safely expect from this orchestra under this conductor, was met.
Although nominally sold out, not every subscription holder had come to the Philharmonic Hall at the Gasteig to listen to a contemporary piece. Perhaps if they had been told that Jörg Widmann’s “Con brio” concert overture lasted only 12 minutes, they might have reconsidered. They would have encountered a Beethoven tribute certain to stir, but not likely disturb them. Widmann, a 35 year old clarinetist and composer born in Munich with a significant discography to his name in both functions, was commissioned to compose Con brio as an overture for the BRSO’s new season – and to relate it to the two Beethoven symphonies it would be paired with.
Widmann complied in many ways – most obviously by using an identical orchestra with two flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, a timpanist and strings. Although he says that he didn’t quote a single note from Beethoven, the work teems with quasi quotations that may not be literal, but remind every listener exactly which composer is receiving a tribute here. These familiar chords first rip through the introductory hiss of the woodwinds’ toneless blowing and they return throughout the work – as repetition, in addition to contrast and musical blocks, is the most evident element Widmann employs.
The greatest achievement of Con brio might be the combination of a conventional treatment of the orchestra and its instrumental sections, and conventional beauty rearing its head throughout – without ever sounding as though it pandered to the conservative audience. It works because Widmann doesn’t treat the moments of beauty and obvious tonality (F- and A-major, in reference to the symphony) with the irony many other modern composers do, assuming they dare touch traditional tonality or beauty at all.
The reoccurring fanfares, the brief moments that wouldn’t be out of place on a James Bond soundtrack, a timpani part that sounds like a hamster with unclipped nails locked in the dryer, the familiarity that’s always just around the corner juxtaposed with unrepentantly modern elements, the repetitions and a Copeland-esque touch at the end, all result in a work that is eminently listenable. Anyone with an appreciation of Schnittke would have been particularly pleased.
With brevity, the most underrated of musical values, on its side, it’s an entertaining, interesting, and thoroughly invigorating 12 minutes. A treasure among so many commissioned pieces that aren’t, and bound to find acceptance and play-time with many other orchestras programming either of these two Beethoven symphonies.