Jörg Widman directs the RSNO in a tremendous evening of Mozart and Mendelssohn in Glasgow

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Widman, Mendelssohn: Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Jörg Widman (clarinet / conductor), RSNO Centre, Glasgow, 20.11.2020. (GT)

Jörg Widman (clarinet/conductor) and RSNO

Mozart – Clarinet Concerto in A major, K.622


Mendelssohn – Symphony No.5 in D major, Op.107 ‘Reformation’

This Royal Scottish National Orchestra digital series is into its fourth concert in this season in a pattern of a concerto, a brief encore piece, and a symphony in just over an hour. The positioning of the musicians – which employs social distancing – doesn’t, in my opinion, hinder the sound, although I notice other European ensembles play as normal in their digital concerts. This programme is more familiar to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, especially the Mendelssohn ‘Reformation’ Symphony; every season the SCO performs at least two or three of Mendelssohn’s symphonies. I can’t remember the last time that this symphony was programmed by the RSNO.

The German composer, clarinettist and conductor Jörg Widman was making his debut here with the RSNO, although he has played with the SCO previously. His music has developed popularity with many works in diverse genres played worldwide. His teachers were Gerd Starke and Charles Neidich in Munich and New York, respectively.

Combining a late Mozart masterwork with Mendelssohn’s final symphony proved a good choice, considering their ties as young, brilliant virtuoso musicians. Both composers were celebrated for their power in composing original tuneful melodies. The opening Allegro of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto was marvellously introduced in the prolonged ritornello section – the strings and wind were on the top of their game – as if they have been playing Mozart for years. Widman produced some beautifully mellifluous playing in the cadenza of the opening movement.  The clarinettist displayed all his world-class musicianship in bringing beauty of tone and dreamy harmony to his audience. The dreamlike Adagio witnessed Widman’s playing well supported by the extraordinarily fine strings led by Sharon Roffman. In the Rondo: Allegro finale, Widman brought this masterpiece to a rousing conclusion.

Widman explained that his clarinet solo piece Fantasie was written when he was nineteen and that ‘he threw everything into it’. Its six-minute length is sparkling with many styles ranging from jazz-like syncopations to sharply disturbing inflections of dissonance. The composer said it is like a dialogue with both moods of happiness and joy prevalent. Certainly, it is a virtuoso work and a brilliant showpiece for the clarinet. Zachary Woolfe in The New York Times called it ‘the most beautiful circus music ever written’.

Mendelssohn’s ‘Reformation’ Symphony is another rare piece for this ensemble, the last time this symphony was played in Glasgow, the SCO employed a ‘serpent’ in the closing movement. It was a pleasure to hear the beautifully tuneful strings in the opening movement, Andante, in the reverent intonation of the ‘Dresden Amen’, and it was apparent by their playing how much the brass revelled in this glorious music. They led into a turbulent section of Beethovenian intensity in the Allegro con fuoco before again, the ‘Dresden Amen’ returned in a hushed veneration. The Allegro vivace, or more likely, the scherzo was delightfully colourful in the Trio section, with fine contributions from the oboe of Adrian Wilson, the flute of Harry Winstanley, and the bassoon of David Hubbard. Widman conducted without a baton, energetically manipulating his arms and hands, while his facial expressions were effective. The orchestra was on top form throughout, and the level of music-making remained constant. In the Andante, the beauty of the leading melody was spellbinding.  In the finale, the flute of Winstanley was exquisite in announcing the Lutheran hymn ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’, and picked up magnificently by the brass. Mention must be made of the brilliant playing by Christopher Hart on trumpet. The whole orchestra united splendidly in the old Lutheran chorale to bring this fine symphony to a glorious and celebratory close. In all, this was an impressive performance, and hopefully, the RSNO will tackle more works by this frequently neglected composer. Mendelssohn’s concert outings are restricted to perhaps just three orchestral masterpieces – the Violin Concerto, Fingal’s Cave, and the ‘Scottish’ Symphony. This was a tremendous concert leaving one wanting to hear more from the RSNO in this repertoire.

Gregor Tassie

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