Jörg Widmann and Mitsuko Uchida: A Formidable Partnership

12/02/2017

Brahms, Berg, Widmann, Schubert and Schumann: Jörg Widmann (clarinet), Mitsuko Uchida (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 9.2.2017. (MB)

Brahms – Clarinet Sonata no.1 in F minor, op.120 no.1
Berg – Four Pieces for clarinet and piano, op.5
Jörg WidmannFantasie, for solo clarinet; Sonatina facile (UK premiere)
Schubert – Impromptu in C minor, D 899/1
SchumannFantasiestücke, op.73

A wonderful concert! If I had my doubts about the substance of the new Sonatina facile for piano solo, by Jörg Widmann, it was entertaining enough, and received a bravura performance from Mitsuko Uchida. A tribute to Mozart’s C major Piano Sonata, KV 545, with identical movement markings – Allegro, Andante, and Rondo – it starts off in deconstructive fashion not dissimilar to Schnittke’s (K)ein Sommernachtstraum. Harmonies in the opening Allegro at times sound not unlike Henze; I thought of his own Mozart piano tribute, Cherubino. The nineteenth century looms large too, throughout the piece: ‘nineteenth century Mozart’, Beethoven (op.13?), Chopin, et al. As with his Con brio Concert Overture, there is much that teases: is this quotation or allusion? Does it matter? Whatever it is, though, it is certainly not facile in the sense applied to Mozart’s work.

Otherwise, there was much to intrigue, to enjoy, even to confound. The starkness of much of Uchida’s piano playing in the first movement of the Brahms F minor Sonata guarded against any conventional notion of autumnal mellowness. (I love that variety of Brahms as much as the next listener, perhaps more, but it is not the only way.) Widmann’s clarinet playing seemed to look even towards Birtwistle, certainly towards Berg and Schoenberg. A sense of exhaustion and the impetus dialectically derived from it brought Mendelssohn to mind at one point, so this was not simply Brahms from a twentieth- or indeed twenty-first century standpoint. Intervals – and then how does one not think of Webern – did a good deal of the work, just as they should. I liked the uneasy, even sometimes effortful lyricism of the second movement. The opening, neo-Mozartian – definitely not Mozartian without the ‘neo’ – grace of the Allegretto grazioso was soon undercut. Darkness was far from confined to the central section. The finale was more volatile than one generally hears, and all the better for it.

Berg’s Four Pieces followed naturally – or better, with seeming inevitability. From the very first piece, the similarity not only in motivic working but also in expressivity was apparent: not always, of course, but often. There was certainly nothing Brahmsian about those piano bell chimes, magical and menacing at once. Kinship with Schoenberg’s op.19 (especially the second of those pieces) was especially apparent in Uchida’s performance of the second piece, tendencies intensified in the fourth, whilst Widmann’s – the clarinet’s – scampering wit in the third evoked Pierrot lunaire. That intensification in the fourth and final piece brought home just what variety there is to be experienced in unity, and vice versa. ‘Cataclysmic’ would not be an exaggerated description of the piano climax as heard here. And then, quite, lyrical witness…

Widmann’s solo Fantasie proved quite the tour de force. A glassy, multiphonic drone-like opening, out of which Don Juan-like ascending phrases issue forth, lodged itself long in the memory. All manner of extended techniques, and more ‘traditional’ ones – jazzy glissandi, for instance – contributed to a compelling narrative. Contours were traced by Widmann as performer, insofar as one can distinguish the two, with high drama and a sovereign command of musical line.

The C minor Impromptu with which the second half opened began, perhaps echoing the Brahms, in stark fashion, yet would ultimately prove far from unyielding. Nevertheless, such was the granite-like implacability of Uchida’s performance, that I thought more of a conductor such as Otto Klemperer than of pianists. For all the grandeur, though, there was great intimacy too: such were revealed to be two sides of the same coin. Schubert sounded contemporary, if anything rather more so than the Widmann of the Sonatina facile.

Schumann’s Fantasiestücke opened as if with a reminiscence of an earlier Brahms than the one we had heard here. Melody, harmony, even developmental method evoked kinship. By the same token, there was something fresher here, redolent of a stroll through German Romantic woods. The second piece was fantastical – as the title would suggest! – in the best Schumann tradition. There was nothing ‘late’ here, save perhaps for our perception. Sunny, yet not without shadow, the third exhibited more than a hint of neo-Classicism, suggesting connections with Widmann’s own work. The Andante from Mendelssohn’s early clarinet sonata in E-flat major offered longing without exaggeration; connections with much of what we had heard earlier were inescapable, but were never forced upon us.

Mark Berry

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