Hardenberger peerless in Widmann’s Towards Paradise, and a fine Mahler Fifth from Harding and the LSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Widmann, Mahler: Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), London Symphony Orchestra / Daniel Harding (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 24.3.2024. (CK)

Håkan Hardenberger © LSO/Mark Allan

Widmann – Towards Paradise (Labyrinth VI)
Mahler – Symphony No.5

As the Barbican Hall stage filled up with players for Jorg Widmann’s Towards Paradise, I was reminded of a long-ago concert given by Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra in which Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony was preceded by a gargantuan piece by Wolfgang Rihm (one of Widmann’s teachers) after which, perhaps uniquely, players had to leave the stage to reduce the orchestra to the size required for Mahler 2. It didn’t quite come to that (we had Mahler 5 to follow) though I suspect Widmann asks for reduced strings so that the vast percussion section can be accommodated (Wikipedia lists almost 100 items, entrusted to five players). Also on show were a contrabass clarinet (I had no idea such a thing existed), harps, celeste and an accordion.

Widmann was apparently the third most performed composer in 2023 (after John Williams and Arvo Part – where was John Adams, I wonder?), but his music was new to me. The programme note suggested that he is prolific, eclectic, chameleonic and impossible to pin down stylistically: yet an unworthy part of me thought here we go again, another expressionistic nightmare in the line from Mahler and Berg through Hartmann to Henze and Rihm and Glanert – the German composers who didn’t go to Darmstadt, or didn’t stay there. (I like some of Henze’s and Glanert’s music; I find the fact that Rihm has written over 500 compositions terrifying.)

The most important thing about Towards Paradise is that it is written for the prince of trumpeters, Håkan Hardenberger – now turned 60 – and performed by him with dazzling artistry and aplomb. Beginning in darkness, offstage right, he makes a 40-minute journey into and around the orchestra, eventually fading into the distance and darkness offstage left (rather like Tom Waits in Gavin Bryars’s Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet). Hardenberger was a riveting presence throughout, on his own or engaging with the orchestra in a variety of ways: sometimes spraying splinters of sound in all directions, sometimes soothing the orchestral beast with a lyrical line. There was a nice moment early on when his gentle playing evoked a sympathetic response from James Fountain’s trumpet in the orchestra; another, later on, when his own trumpet seemed almost to dance; another where his quasi-tonal music sounded (dare I utter the word?) almost kitschy.

The piece is the sixth in a series of works subtitled Labyrinth: it seemed an appropriate way to think of the complex web of sounds woven by the orchestra – sometimes baleful, sometimes seductive – as the soloist made his way through it. String harmonics; a horn chorale; tintinnabulations from the racks of gongs extending halfway across the back of the stage; salvoes from the heavy brass and drums; glistening sounds from the lighter percussion; a nocturne with bells …at one stage it seemed as if we were slowly ascending from darker timbres to lighter, as if we were indeed travelling Towards Paradise: but that would be too simple, wouldn’t it?  Without warning a percussion barrage opened up a big hole and we all tumbled through it: not so much a Labyrinth as a cosmic Snakes and Ladders.

Behind it all lurks the figure of Mahler; at certain moments his music seems almost to materialise – the first Nachtmusik of the Seventh Symphony, the funeral march in Der Abschied from Das Lied von der Erde, the opening of the finale of the Second Symphony, the brass cortege at the end of the Sixth. Mahler’s darker side.

The theatrical element may remind us of Birtwistle (perhaps Theseus Game or Endless Parade). The trumpeter’s journey from darkness to darkness collapses the piece in one’s memory – rather like the famous metaphor for human life, recorded by Bede, of the sparrow that flies out of the dark through a lighted hall and out again into the storm. The rapturous reception was, rightly, for Hardenberger’s extraordinary performance; but also in recognition of the LSO’s tireless virtuosity in projecting Widmann’s score with maximum vividness.

Daniel Harding conducts the London Symphony Orchestra © LSO/Mark Allan

Daniel Harding seemed right on top of this demanding piece. Strange to remember that it is almost 30 years since I first saw him, aged 20, conducting Stockhausen’s Gruppen with Simon Rattle and John Carewe. After the interval he led the LSO in an uncommonly fine performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony: a performance to rekindle my enthusiasm for the work, which has been on the wane for some time. In the first two movements the music had teeth – it sounded more dangerous than usual, with a raw edge: James Fountain’s trumpet set the tone and continued as a formidable presence throughout, as did Patrick King’s timpani playing, both loud and soft. The mood was uncompromisingly black: the first appearance of the chorale towards the end of the second movement gleamed magnificently before the darkness closed in again. In the first movement one of my favourite moments – the glorious expansion of tone at bar 247 – was given the space that I otherwise find only in Barbirolli’s famous recording.

The sense of space continued through the fiendishly complex Scherzo (I remember Bernard Haitink, during a BBC Prom performance, turning to us in the Arena and muttering ‘that movement is the very devil’). Nicht eilen, instructs Mahler, don’t hurry: the clarity of the playing invited us to marvel at the sheer invention of the music. Fine and sensitive horn playing from the orchestra’s recent acquisition Diego Incertis Sánchez, and a gloriously blended sound from the brass; and a palpable sense of excitement as the movement neared its close.

With violins left and right, the Adagietto sounded natural and unforced, the strings pliant, phrasing and dynamics meaningful. The horn broke in just as the string sound (morendo) died, without a moment of silence: I liked the effect, whether or not it is sanctioned in the score. The finale went irresistibly, the cellos digging into their bustling theme with a will, rollicking horns, oboes and clarinets with bells raised, and Harding’s conducting as expressive as it was dynamic. Another favourite moment – the cheeky twirl on flutes, oboes and clarinets at Fig.29 – was projected with cartoonish vigour. The ending was properly triumphant: not quite Paradise Gained, perhaps, but as Widmann says, ‘Aren’t we all searching for paradise …at least in music?’

Chris Kettle

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