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15.3.16

Ionarts-at-Large: Widmann's new Viola Concerto

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra beckoned last week with an interesting fare of the new and the rare: Jörg Widmann’s Viola Concerto (the German premiere, after it received performances from the co-commissioning Orchestre de Paris conducted by Paavo Järvi in late 2015 at the Philharmonie de Paris) and Elgar’s Second Symphony.

The latter is a rarity in central Europe, where Elgar is treated with a certain amount of skepticism if not outright condescension. So much that I was surprised to find that the BRSO had actually performed Elgar’s Second quite recently… in 2008 under another Brit on missionary Elgar-tour: Sir Colin Davis (coupled with a Mozart Violin concerto; ionarts review here.) Then again, to think of eight years as “quite recent” shows something about the state of Elgar across the channel. I dare say that his status did not improve after this performance. Granted, the brisk first movement (I loved how the very opening of it was shaped)—bordering wild, for Elgar’s standards—had the orchestra right in lock-step with Harding. The second movement had a jolly let’s-have-fun-performance quality. “Don’t think too much about it”, he seemed to suggest and just dig in and be carried away. (Only that the carrying-away didn’t arrive very notably.) But there loomed buts.


available at Amazon
E.Elgar, Symphony No.2,
G.Sinopoli/Philharmonia
DG



available at Amazon
J.Widmann, Violin Concerto,
D.Harding/C.Tetzlaff
Ondine

Too loud, thick in texture (arguably Elgar’s fault, in part, and also noted after Davis’ performance), and incoherently argued, the symphony still ended an episodic mash of sound with nice moments, hardly connected to—much less held together by—the rest of the music. And with little by way of noble English demeanor, a stereotype which Elgar’s music rather befits. It would be easy to blame the orchestra for not getting an inflection or style with which it is not familiar. But not so the BRSO, even with plenty substitute players as eager a group of quick learners (with technique to match) as three is on the orchestral scene.

And so I was reminded that Daniel Harding, that youngish conductor who seems to tick all the right boxes, has all the right connections, and a pedigree to match (Abbado- and Rattle-disciple) has been the only conductor that I have ever heard a bad concert with the otherwise unflappable BRSO*. Something always seems to not quite gel when I hear Harding. Anyway, dwelling on unlucky Elgar is needless when a highlight can still be reported, namely said Widmann Concerto. The work startles the uninitiated, beginning with the unusual setup: sparse strings, sitting in a semi-circle with plenty of room and several lonely music stands between them. Then the soloist enters from off stage as the concerto is already under way, (ab)using the instrument as a tam-tam. The soloist—Antoine Tamestit—half dances his way to the music stand nearest him and from there begins to make his way in concentric circles around the orchestra until he finds, for the finale, the conventional soloist’s position next to the conductor.

This he does by way of acting and interacting with musicians en route. For example an angry tuba that barks at him loud enough to make him jump. Tamestit answers with a vigorous pizzicato (I didn’t look which finger he used), the kind of which he had already delivered in the first five minutes with such vigor that I was afraid his hands might start bleeding. Perhaps Widmann had speculated with a guitar concerto for a while before settling on a viola concerto when the initial commission fell through. Amid sparse strings, pizzicato orgies, shivering glissandi, and further experiments in sound—some pointillist others with a metallic ring to it—a voice emerges that one might half expect in something influenced by Messiaen. It’s ten minutes into the concerto and Tamestit hasn’t had a bow in his hand yet. When he first does, it is still only the bow’s button which he taps on strings. It’s certainly a work that makes Widmann’s powerhouse Violin Concerto look ultra-conventional.

If this all sounds rather naff, well, it might easily have been. But for the poise and style and earnest beauty with which Antoine Tamestit performed the concerto, it came across as interesting, indeed captivating instead. I certainly was alert for every second of it—and easily so—which is more than I can say about most concertos. And not just I, by all appearances:

The audience, partly due to self-selection, partly because it is one of the keener, more interested symphonic audiences, listened to the stereophonic going-ons in silence which I am tempted to describe as “rapt”. Admirably few coughing salvos disrupted the shape-shifting, character-switching, landscape-altering concert. There, Omar Khayyam suddenly popped up, courtesy of the winds! Repetitive motions of buzzing sound create a surprisingly catchy rhythmic urgency of near-Bartók-String-Quartet proportions. A Scream… and the orchestra sounds like it is falling down a massive stairwell. One more massive glissando and Tamestit finally in ‘finale-position.’ Here he doesn’t take off and deliver a relentless, powerful final run to the finish, as I imagined, a final-stretch tour de force of violistic [sic] rampage. Instead there reigns quiet and a newborn tenderness, sweet and with shades of innocence.





* It was Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge arranged for orchestra followed by a Bruckner Mass; I must have elected not to review it then. But I’ve also heard Harding in excellent Bartók later that same year with the same orchestra. Otherwise memory serves up more ho-hum experiences than ecstasy, though. Then again, one of the very few musicians I adore happens to think very highly of Harding and so I assume the fault is entirely mine and try to suspend judgement… even if I am more and more tending toward the conclusion that for all the qualities so obviously there, something is missing with Harding (as of yet). Perhaps another decade of daily grind with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra will fix everything, if anything needs fixing.

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