Widmann and the Hagen Quartet Penetrate to the Heart of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet.

Hagen Quartet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Webern, Widmann, and Mozart: Hagen Quartet (Lukas Hagen (violin), Rainer Schmidt (violin), Veronika Hagen (viola), Clemens Hagen (cello)), Jörg Widmann (clarinet). Wigmore Hall, London, 30.1.2018. (MB)

Webern – String Quartet (1905)

Widmann – Clarinet Quintet (2017, UK premiere)

Mozart – Clarinet Quintet in A major, K 581

The Hagen Quartet opened this concert with Webern’s 1905 String Quartet, not a work I can recall ever having heard ‘live’ before, although it has been well treated on disc. (Yes, I remain old-fashioned enough to say that and indeed to listen to recordings.) I was quite taken aback by the frozen, starkly modernistic opening in the Hagens’ performance: not only arresting in itself, but not quite what I should have expected from them. The music certainly warmed; yet, in that warming, it became more, not less, febrile, this fascinating early piece sounding almost as if it were sped-up and, later, slowed down early-ish Schoenberg. It does not – and did not – have the consistency of, say, Schoenberg’s own unnumbered quartet, let alone his four ‘official’ ones, nor indeed his fragments. The Hagens, however, captured very well its unsettled strangeness of style and method, whilst still pointing to those aspects, more than one might initially suspect, that look forward to Webern’s mature works. The unisons, quite rightly, did not ring true, nor the somewhat contrived cadences at the ends of sections. With equal justice, though, the final cadence did, as if a flickering reminiscence of Verklärte Nacht. This seemed to me an object lesson in performance of a problematical work, neither making excuses for it, nor running away from its difficulties.

Jörg Widmann joined the players for the rest of the concert, first in his own Clarinet Quintet, here receiving its first British performance, and then in Mozart’s supreme masterpiece of the genre. It is, according to the composer in a programme note, ‘a single 40-minute Adagio in which the initial tempo marking Lento assai could stand as a programme for the entire work. (I say ‘according to’, not because I disbelieve him, but simply because I did not consult my watch.) It is, not unreasonably for a clarinettist composer, something he had long wanted to write, yet, ‘in 2009, my humility and admiration of these masterpieces [the ones you would expect…] brought my life project clarinet quintet to a temporary halt. … Eight years later, in 2017, I returned to my plans.’ Immediately, Widmann continues, he ‘sensed that the long wait had been worth it.’ Without claiming any knowledge of what it would have been like had he continued earlier, I suspect that he was right, for what we heard proved to be a typically accomplished and absorbing reckoning with tradition.

That febrile quality heard in much of the Webern performance seemed to continue, indeed to be intensified, in the opening of this long slow(ish) movement, whose overall conception often brought to mind a Brucknerian conception of time, although not, I think, a remotely Brucknerian method. Perhaps, though, there were elements of deformation of an imaginary Bruckner Adagio, for, as is often the case with Widmann’s music, one perceived – or at least I did! – all manner of refractions of ‘original’, Classical-Romantic music, which had most likely never existed in the first place: at least not for us. Mozart, Brahms, perhaps Reger too, also hovered as ghosts in our musical consciousness: sometimes in a phrase, sometimes in a progression, sometimes goodness knows how. Interestingly, in context, some of the results of what appeared to have been a very different conception and process, did not sound so very different from Webern either. Or was that all a matter of my own historical baggage? We all have our Vergangenheitsbewältigung to do, after all, even if some countries are rather more advanced than ours in doing so. (It would hardly be difficult.) Haunted and haunting, just when the music might have seemed in danger of coming too close to a past, even if that past had never been, more recent, even living ghosts, or angels perhaps – Lachenmann, Stockhausen, Rihm? – appeared to join our musical host.

Then, through a performative virtuosity that sometimes we are in danger of taking for granted, Widmann suggested (again, at least to me) a glass armonica, perhaps even something older, a mediaevalism. Dactylic meter seemed to evoke Beethoven and Schubert, but did it? You can call that postmodernism if you like, but I do not think it is, not here, not straightforwardly. For there is an overall conception of form, of purpose, that is quite different, to my understanding anyway. At any rate, extended techniques, both in composition and performance, spoke both of a reinvented past as much as present and future. ‘Zum Raum hier wird die Zeit?’ Not really, or not at any rate, as the anti-historical Schopenhauer might have understood Gurnemanz’s words. Wagner, ever a student also of Hegel, knew better, though; so, I think, does Widmann. Ruptures intrigued, as, I fancied, they might have intrigued Adorno. Might a caesura bring back the past? Of course not, but why should it, or rather its composer, not try, knowing, like Mahler with a Luftpause, that he was bound at some level, to fail? The violence of such a rupture nevertheless remained: again, haunted and haunting.

A great performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet will, in different yet not mutually opposed ways, possess some of that haunted and haunting quality to us, as twenty-first-century listeners. This did, and I think may genuinely be accounted as ‘great’, or very close thereto. The utter perfection of Mozart’s work shone through. Even if there were occasional things one might have done differently oneself in the abstract – and if so, they were so minor, I have forgotten them – then there was nothing that jarred, nothing that screamed ‘look at me’, nothing that spoke of ‘reassessment’ for the mere sake of reassessment. We seemed, at any rate, to return to an Elysium from which we knew we should soon be expelled once again; or rather, we beheld it, in some sense partook in it, whilst knowing that it was never straightforwardly ours. Such is the particular pain of Mozart’s music, perhaps ever more so with the passing of every year (and his every January birthday).

This was as attentive a performance as anyone might have hoped for. Beauty of tone was certainly present, yet expressive, not a mere end in itself. Mozart’s formal concision as well as dynamism shone through, Webern in a sense remaining. And yet so did his command of the longest of lines and the way he plays with expectations: Widmann remained too. The first movement’s development section sounded as rare, as fantastical, as anything in Così fan tutte. Its recapitulation – with apologies to the Guardian journalist who recently declared, ex cathedra, that such talk should be banished from her brave new world of quinoa for all – functioned, or rather was experienced, very much as a second development, a new, wondrous world of wordless dramatic exploration.

Hushed equipoise characterised much, although not all, of the slow movement. There was nothing remotely sentimental to it. We were, however, called, drawn in to listen; and listen, I think, we did. Mozart’s music sang as if this were the only way to sing it. It is not, of course, but a sense of absolute ‘rightness’ is no bad thing, however much we know it, in retrospect, to have been relative. The minuet, alive, alert, in some sense again unattainable, contrasted duly, wondrously with its in turn contrasting trios, the one stern, without rupture to kinship, the other breathing the world of a remembered Salzburg serenade. The finale concluded and unified our experience without apparent effort: just as it should sound, however great the actual effort. Its profusion of melodic and, later, harmonic variation were relished with, again, that sense of ineffable ‘rightness’. How did anyone ever dare to write another clarinet quintet after this? We should nevertheless be grateful that some composers have. For if we are to believe in tradition at all, it must never stand still, always develop. Mozart will remain.

Mark Berry

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