A Widmann Premiere, Inspired by Mahler’s Fifth

United StatesUnited States C.P.E. Bach, Widmann, Brahms: Yefim Bronfman (piano), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 23.6.2016. (HS)

C.P.E. Bach: Symphony in D major (H. 663)
Jörg Widmann: Trauermarsch for Piano and Orchestra
Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C minor

The tickets for this week’s San Francisco Symphony subscription concerts were stamped “Brahms Symphony No. 1,” but all ears were focused on the North American premiere of a thorny but colorful piece for piano and orchestra by the German composer Jörg Widmann, with the formidable pianist Yefim Bronfman. A champion of Widmann’s work, Bronfman also debuted the composer’s Elf Homoresken for solo piano (2007) at Carnegie Hall.

Co-commissioned by San Francisco Symphony, Toronto Symphony and the Berlin Philharmonic (the latter premiered the 25-minute piece in 2015 under Simon Rattle), Trauermarsch is not a concerto so much as a dream sequence, touched off by fragmentary references to one of the most famous orchestral funeral marches, that of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.

Rather than a solo showcase, Trauermarsch uses the piano more as a trigger for ever denser and more complex expansions of its musical material. The piano begins by picking out a half-step downward sigh and elaborating briefly, before the orchestra starts building upon it. The dotted-eighth rhythmic gesture that’s common to so many funeral marches in the classical canon recurs as well, as the orchestra responds to the piano’s every musical utterance in a stream of consciousness.

The piano hardly gets started on an idea before Widmann’s musical argument spins off into densely packed, crunchy harmonies and flails into twisting melodic yelps and grunts. Occasionally, the score surprises with a jazzy rhythm—even one section that feels like a pop ballad—but nothing lasts for long. This composer seems particularly interested in using his outsized orchestra to explore unusual percussion sonorities: a water gong, which makes its ringing sound wobble; a waterphone, which looks like a World Series trophy being bowed; and vibraslap, a sort of extra-resonant whip. All are prominent, along with vibraphone, xylophone, and a lotus whistle.

An accomplished clarinet soloist and chamber music star, Widmann pays special attention to woodwinds. Every player in that section seemed to be reaching for another variation on the standard size instruments, extending the range of sound from tiny E-flat clarinets to oversized contrabass ones. The massive waves of orchestral color were in endlessly complex hues.

Exactly how this adds up into something an audience can grasp was hard to follow, at least on first hearing. Just when Bronfman dazzled with a pianistic coup, Widmann shifted to another idea. What was missing were thematic touchstones for listeners to grab onto.

Widmann’s work simultaneously extends the 21st-century extension of the long German symphonic tradition—then crashes the party with rude efforts to overturn it. The contrast with the opening, the compact D major symphony by C.P.E. Bach from 1776, only underlined this aspect. The composer, a contemporary of (and inspiration for) both Handel and Mozart, consciously takes the musical traditions of his time with a grain of salt. Within a traditional structure, Bach introduced off-kilter rhythmic patterns and harmonic shifts that were unexpected for their time.

Using a string section somewhat larger than what might have been common in C.P.E. Bach’s time, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas emphasized these unusual aspects nicely, but missed the essential springiness and dancelike vivacity. The performance seemed dutiful rather than delightful.

The same could be said of the traversal of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. There was nothing wrong here, though the various solos were less expressive than what one normally hears from this group, and the brass chorales in the finale were less scintillating. As if to contrast with Widmann’s ill-mannered glosses on Mahler, Tilson Thomas seemed to aim for a thoroughly traditional and respectful reading. The fireworks were in the first half.

Harvey Steiman

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