How can a composer aged under 40 be the draw of a Prom with Bruckner and Mozart? If he's Jörg Widmann and the piece is Con Brio.
Con Brio was only written last year. One pf my friends heard the New York premiere and was thrilled, so there was no way I was missing this Prom even though I've been less enthused about Jonathan Nott, the conductor, and Bruckner isn't my thing, try as I may.
Widmann is no stranger. Earlier this year, he was the subject of a whole series of concerts at the Wigmore Hall, where the composer himself played, sometimes accompanied by his also talented sister Carolin.
Most composers play, teach and write so that isn't any kind of surprise at all. What makes Widmann exciting is his articulate enthusiasm and knowledge. That is a much rarer talent than we assume. Widmann should be writing and broadcasting. Listen to the preconcert broadcast HERE for 7 days. (This will also link to the rebroadcast of Prom 17). Most of these BBC talks are abysmal, but Widmann keeps the focus on music, and knows what he's talking about. There are also full performances of Air for Solo Horn, and Five Fragments (1997) this latter interesting because it flirts with extremes high and low but is densely compressed. At about 35 minutes, Widmann himself plays his early (1993) Fantasie.
My friend was right about Con Brio. It's fun! It was written specifically to complement a concert of Beethoven's 7th and 8th symphonies. Thus the snatches of Beethoven. But Widmann is certainly not simply referencing the past, he's far too sharp to wallow in pastiche. Instead he turns the glamour of Beethoven on its head, focussing on basic percussion rhythms. Short, hollow sounds scatter along like objects blown on the ground, muffled whistles. Amazing what timpani can do. There's even the whisper of a formal gavotte, and the echo of a trumpet fanfare and, a hint of Alle menschen würden Brüder. But it's probably wrong to get wrapped up in quotes. This is much more sophisticated, the "essence" of the older composer. This is Beethoven's skeleton. "Nothing left in the end", says Widmann, "only bones".
Since listening to Con Brio last night I listened to Beethoven 5th. Yes! there's that sense of notes hurtling foward, breaking and reforming. A few years ago I saw an Austrian cartoon based on the symphony, which showed clocks ticking, then changing tempo, leaves fluttering on cobbled streets, so much movement. Then, Beethoven himself, a brooding figure, no softness but a deeper grandeur. Con Brio isn't a great masterpiece by any means, but it's fun and apposite.
Arabella Steinbacher was the soloist in Mozart's Violin Concerto no 3 (K216). It worked well with Con brio because it's so free and spare. The Bamberg Symphony Orchestra isn't huge and starry. Bamberg is a small town, with a superb music school, so it has a different character to orchestras in major cities. It has a lovely sound, mellow but firm, like the wood on an old violin. I first heard them with Keilberth. It always has played new music, some so obscure it's never been heard again. Some of Jonathan Nott's work with this orchestra has been very good indeed, particularly when he works with their strengths, some less so. I should have listened to their Bruckner. They'd be good.
photo : ©Schott productions/Peter Andersen
Tonight : Susan Graham in Berlioz, with Mendelssohn's massive Lobgesang. Watch this space.