Widmann’s Viola Concerto blazes theatrically into Cleveland

United StatesUnited States Widmann, Strauss: Antoine Tamestit (viola), Cleveland Orchestra / Daniel Harding (conductor). Mandel Concert Hall at Severance Music Center, Cleveland, 20.10.2022. (MSJ)

Daniel Harding conducts Strauss’s Alpine Symphony © Roger Mastroianni

Widmann – Viola Concerto

R. StraussEine Alpensinfonie

Who says a soloist has to stand, rooted in place, beside the conductor? Who says that a concerto has to be in the traditional three movements? Who says a work must be either aggressively modern or relentlessly old-fashioned? Who says a concerto must be a shallow showpiece? There are many assumptions about concertos, and composer Jörg Widmann discards almost every one of them in his astonishing viola concerto. The 2015 piece received its Cleveland premiere in this concert, played by the work’s dedicatee, Antoine Tamestit.

It was evident from the beginning that this work would be unusual. Conductor Daniel Harding entered the stage and took the podium, but the soloist did not follow him. As Harding stood silently on the podium, a few uncertain coughs sounded in the audience. A slight tapping sound arose from the extreme left side of the stage. It turns out that Tamestit had already been sitting on stage and, as he stood up, peering all around, he wasn’t playing his viola in the usual manner but tapping its wooden top.

Antoine Tamestit plays Widmann’s Viola Concerto © Roger Mastroianni

After a few moments of unanswered tapping, the small orchestral force onstage finally acknowledged the soloist with a brief, irritated flourish. The soloist stepped toward the center of the stage, but his tapping didn’t get further response. Finally, a bongo at the rear of the stage responded, and Tamestit jerked his head toward it, then crossed over to the percussion section for a brief exchange. As the piece took shape, the soloist moved around the stage, attempting to engage with individuals and sections. The soloist ‘discovers’ playing with pitches as he taps, then pizzicato, and eventually, a bow. When Tamestit first encountered the bow, he wielded it like Excalibur before applying it to the strings. By this point, we were already a third of the way through the piece.

Bow incorporated, the complexity, dissonance and brilliance of the writing grew. The viola had memorable encounters with winds, tremolo low strings, and even became humorous at one point when a fight broke out with an angry tuba. As the piece hurtled toward a climax, the viola part became ferociously thorny, with Tamestit suddenly breaking off with a scream.

In the aftermath of the imploded climax, textures thinned, and the dissonance melted. Tamestit worked his way to the front of the stage, and began trading more lyrical phrases with the strings, which gradually took shape as a mournful, tonal lament, the sweet harmonies all the more moving having emerged from the preceding wildness. In a breathtaking moment, the viola joined with the evening’s concertmaster, Jessica Lee, playing in unison. Then, textures began to sag and fall apart, drifting downward. In the closing moments, after the low strings faded out, Tamestit began de-tuning the viola’s low C string, trailing off into nothingness.

The piece was a theatrical tour de force, and Tamestit was both fiercely committed and musically compelling. He was matched every step of the way by Harding and the players, and the effect was electric. Composer Widmann has a long history with the Cleveland Orchestra, having previously served as a Daniel R. Lewis Composing Fellow. His 2014 Trauermarsch made a strong impression in a 2018 concert (click here), and this work was even more impressive, receiving a standing ovation and cheers from the audience.

As the second half of the concert was about to begin, an elderly woman in the row behind me whispered to her neighbor, ‘This next one is by Richard Strauss, so it will be normal’. While it is certainly debatable how ‘normal’ Strauss’s Alpine Symphony is, this particular performance would not be the kind of normal I would like to see regularly. There is no question whatsoever that Daniel Harding is skilled, knows how the music goes and can build a climax. There were many moments where his broad tempos allowed felicitous details to show through Strauss’s busy textures – moments such as the crash into the minor after the off-stage horn calls were delivered expertly.

So, Harding knows how to conduct an orchestra. But does he know why we bother with this extraordinary ritual known as a symphony concert? He was sharply committed in the Widmann, and the spirit was electric. In the Strauss, he demonstrated his absolute knowledge and assurance without offering a compelling sense of engagement, a bit like a knowledgeable but bored tour guide. The orchestra’s sound, while pretty enough, was neither music director Franz Welser-Möst’s silvery sleekness, nor was it the color Jakub Hrůsa draws forth, let alone the sumptuousness Stéphane Denève pulls from the ensemble.

It didn’t help things that Eric Sellen’s program note dwelled almost exclusively on the picture-postcard aspects of the Strauss tone poem. While the work itself has some major shortcomings – Strauss’s meandering fifty-minute wander could have been an outstanding thirty-minute hike with some focused editing – it also has some serious underpinnings. Part of the growth of the work was Strauss’s reaction to the death of Gustav Mahler, which shocked and depressed him. At one point, Strauss was even contemplating a philosophical program with the title Antichrist Symphony, demonstrating just how radical Strauss’s nature worship ran. Flawed though it may be, it is not simply a picture-postcard. This performance evoked little beyond the skillfully wrought notes.

Perhaps we are spoiled in Cleveland with one of the world’s greatest Strauss conductors in Welser-Möst. When I last heard him lead the Alpine Symphony over a decade ago, his sense of urgency helped hold the discursive piece together. I am looking forward to hearing him summit again, now that the orchestra has begun recording a cycle of Strauss works on their own label. The most recent release, TCO0004, contains a reference recording of the early tone poem, Macbeth, and lithe versions of Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel. Welser-Möst understands the hidden neoclassical core of Richard Strauss like few others, and builds his performances around it, much to the music’s benefit. Harding’s steady, dutiful slog through the work demonstrated his own skill but did not summon the music’s elusive spirit.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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