RSNO / Widmann

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

If you’ve ever rubbed a wet finger around the rim of a wine glass and actually managed to make it sing, you’ll know the kind of sound a glass harmonica makes. The actual instrument, invented in 1761, and far more elaborate with its horizontal tapering sequence of revolving glass bowls, enjoyed limited success. Mozart was moved to write for it, as were Beethoven, Donizetti and Richard Strauss among others. Of its more curious history, one German town actually banned it for ruining people’s health, also for disturbing the peace.

That’s hard to imagine, given the inoffensive output this RSNO audience witnessed from the instrument’s spotlight inclusion, played by Christa Schönfeldinger, in Saturday’s mainly Mozart programme. We watched inquisitively as two stage hands carried it on stage, a glistening cylindrical glass sculpture atop a wooden DIY-style frame with pedals to power the revolutions. 

To all intents and purposes Schönfeldinger looked like she was running up curtains on a Singer sewing machine, or operating some weird sonic-powered barbecue from a Star Trek episode. The sound – a soft ringing blandness – would not have been out of place underscoring the latter. In Mozart’s Adagio in C for glass harmonica its blurred tunefulness cut a cross between a seraphic ice cream van and a ghostly fairground organ.

In its own way, it was delightful, and very likely for most of us a once-in-a-lifetime experience. More interesting, perhaps, was the use of this obscure apparatus as the stimulus for Jörg Widmann’s Armonica, essentially a concerto for glass harmonica. That said, it could never, even with the mild amplification, summon up sufficient power to cut through a symphony orchestra. 

All credit, then, to Widmann’s judicious scoring, which uses the instrument’s tonal essence as the springboard for a mounting sequence of waves. The sound world is mainly percussive, exotic and impressionistic, the reediness of a solo accordion (Djordje Gajic) providing roughage to the glass harmonica’s liquidity. 

Widmann himself was on the rostrum for the entire programme, and, as well as investing his own work with absorbing potency, fed an endless stream of reenergising thoughts into Mozart’s final two  Symphonies – No 40 in G minor and the enthralling “Jupiter”, No 41 – which bookended the programme.

His physical approach was gestural, as economical and deliberate as a US traffic cop, picking out moments that really mattered or required a shift in emphasis or pace, while leaving the RSNO to work its own magic where the coast was clear and straightforward. The result was invigorating, at times intoxicating. The innermost details of the G minor symphony were given extraordinary relevance touched by light rhetorical eccentricity; the gravitas of the “Jupiter” was countered by enough sparkle and vivd clarity – even allowing for a few tired moments – to loosen the rigour of its muscular construction. 

Ken Walton