BBC SSO: Widmann
City Halls, Glasgow
Jörg Widmann is a human dynamo. When he appeared last season with the RSNO, we had a glimpse – albeit in recorded film format – of that bundled energy, single-minded flamboyance and multi-talent. As clarinet soloist, composer and conductor rolled into one, it was very definitely the Widmann Show, highly idiosyncratic and pretty damn good.
On Thursday, he adopted the same formula with the BBC SSO, this time before a live audience in the City Halls. The performance style was every bit as sparky, spontaneous and eccentric, but this time many of the risks led into trouble waters and what transpired often seemed more skin-of the-teeth than edge-of-the-seat.
There was no greater illustration than the opening concerto, Weber’s Clarinet Concerto No 1, which by the very nature of its frenetic opening movement requires a steady hand on the tiller. Widmann, doubling as soloist-director, concentrated more on the former than the latter, leaving the orchestra, after pressing the initial on-switch, to second guess his edgy, sidestepping interpretational whims and respond accordingly.
That was no easy task, and plaudits go to leader Laura Samuel for keeping the ship on course, to the extent that a gradually settling SSO elicited more comfortable support in the ensuing movements, particularly the sweet-flowing Adagio, which also revealed a more reflective playing style from Widmann, whose tone at times in the outer movements veered occasionally to the wrong side of harsh.
Widmann’s own Con brio, heard here in a reduced version of an original short concert overture commissioned in 2008 by Mariss Jansons as a partner piece to Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, also seemed like a direct embodiment of his hi-energy persona, the flashing references to Beethoven’s themes exploding on impact, hardly recognisable amid the aftershocks defined by surreal effects on the woodwind and timpani. There’s a bit of overkill in this piece, but it was performed with just the right amount of unbridled panache.
There were idyllic moments in Schumann’s Second Symphony, such as the movingly understated fugue in the Adagio, and clarity of texture in the finale that opened up often undisclosed back-references to the slow movement’s central theme. These were powerful, natural responses to the symphony. But Widmann chose also to take uncomfortable liberties of tempo, and to allow the brass an over-prominence that occasionally masked the tunes that mattered.
For Widmann and the SSO to find a more sustained and successful synergy they need to get to know each other better. And that they will do, now that news has emerged of Widmann’s appointment as the SSO’s artist-in-residence. He’ll be back for two more concerts this season. Sparks could fly.