Widmann Premiere Applies Beethovenian Techniques to 21st Century Sound World

16/10/2016

Widmann, Beethoven, Dvořák: Paul Lewis (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Cristian Mačelaru (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 14.10.2016. (SRT)

Widmann:    Con brio (Scottish premiere)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5, Emperor

Dvořák: Symphony No. 7

Beethoven stands out, like a granite outcrop, as probably the single most influential musician that western culture has produced in the last three centuries; but how do modern composers position themselves in relation to him?  Do they write as though influenced by him, do they consciously avoid him, or do they do something else?  In Con brio, Jörg Widmann grapples with Beethoven’s legacy in his own unique way, by trying to apply Beethoven’s techniques to the contemporary sound world of the 21st century.  Tonight’s conductor, Cristian Mačelaru, suggested that the piece contained bits of all of Beethoven’s symphonies, but if that’s true then it’s only in terms of mood, not actual quotations.  It’s a strange combination of the 19th and 21st centuries, but it’s also quite fun, and much more than a game of spot-the-symphony.  Most interestingly, Widmann repeatedly gets his musicians to make sounds that would normally be seen as fairly non-musical, such as whispering, clicking their teeth or striking their instruments percussively.  The RSNO threw themselves into it pretty gamely, particularly the winds and brass, who bore the brunt of the funny business.  If ultimately I found it a bit difficult to see quite how Widmann was relating himself to Beethoven, then I also have to admit that I probably wouldn’t have been bothered by that if I hadn’t known that that was his aim.

It’s always a delight to welcome Paul Lewis for some real Beethoven, not least because in his poetic, undemonstrative pianism he always puts the music before himself and his image.  He was mesmerising in the Adagio, casting his dreamy spell over the piano’s early ramblings before slotting perfectly into the main theme, and the orchestra was at its best here too, tailoring their sound expertly to the mood.  The outer movements left me cold, however.  The piano bubbled its way through the main theme of the Rondo, but the dance never took off in the orchestra, and the sound Mačelaru crafted for the first movement was so stately and cultured as to be a rather unexciting and even a little formulaic.  Lewis seemed to be deployed as a calming influence there, too, rendering the whole movement too homogenous and afraid of any daring.  It was the most refined Emperor concerto I’ve heard for a while, but also the least interesting.

No such problems for Dvořák’s Seventh symphony, thankfully, which was much more energetic and varied, with a passionate opening movement (that, nevertheless, couldn’t quite avoid some issues of blend at the climaxes) and a slow movement of crystal clear winds and a glowing horn ensemble.  The scherzo was agile and lithe, with a bright tone to the strings, and the finale was energetic and serious, but also earnest.  The Dvořák sounded, in short, as though it had had a lot more rehearsal time than the Beethoven.

Simon Thompson

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