BBC SSO / Widmann

City Halls, Glasgow

The most intriguing facet of Thursday’s lively BBC SSO afternoon concert was not so much the outré demeanour of Jörg Widmann the dynamic and extrovert clarinettist, as the daring originality and inward intensity of his own compositions, which were the exclusive content of the programme’s second half.

The most substantial work was the last to be performed, a sequence of ten concise movements under the collective title Freie Stücke (Free Pieces), written 20 years ago in honour of his teacher Wolfgang Rihm’s 50th birthday. They are highly individual, fascinating in their explorations of subliminal, modernist timbres, and yet proclaim some nostalgia for the aphoristic no-nonsense ideals of such early serialists as Webern. 

That latter quality was prominent in a performance, conducted by Widmann, that bore electrifying transparency and attention-grabbing immediacy. Opening with a fog of spectral harmonics, and a slow steady crescendo that grew menacingly like an approaching swarm of bees, the initial impression was of a slow-burner, a landscape more primordial than existential. 

But that was simply a seedbed for the maturing of ideas, the nuclear intensity of which erupted in short, sharp utterances. With the SSO on full alert, the result was as exhilarating as it was, at times, bewildering. A whispered (concert) ending seemed the perfect way for Widmann to emphasise its unorthodoxy.

He preceded that with a one-man performance of his Fantasie for solo clarinet, a dazzling floor show that said as much about his action-packed personality as his extraordinary facility on the instrument. Packed with darting, scattergun references to jazz, klezmer and so much more, Widmann’s delivery was a stage sensation.

The first half was given over to more established repertoire. SSO Leader Laura Samuel led a neatly charismatic performance of Mozart’s Divertimento in D major, K136, that showed the strings at their corporate best, a glowingly superb and motivated team.

Widmann’s first appearance was in Weber’s Clarinet Quintet in B flat major (its chamber music version). If there were moments in his animated performance that drew a slight ugliness of tone, the instinctive, breathless theatricality of it more than compensated.

Ken Walton

This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast 

Portrait by Marco Borggreve