Jörg Widmann at the Staatsoper Berlin on Wednesday and at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on Thursday. In Berlin, Daniel Barenboim conducted Widmann's Zweites Labyrinth (2006) and in Birmingham Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducted his Babylon Suite , based on Widmann's opera Babylon (2012), the suite premiered earlier this year by Daniel Harding at the Philharmonie, Paris. Widmann was also the soloist in Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in Birmingham. The man gets around ! Proof that new music fits in fine with the mainstream.
Widmann's Zweites Labyrinth für Orchestergruppen is the second in a series of three explorations where sound creates mazes. In a labyrinth you find your way through by trial and error, picking up clues along the way. Zweites Labyrrinth poses puzzles - inventive, cryptic sounds which intrigue because you can't quite place them. Two very different types of cimbalom (Hungarian and Ukrainian), an archaic guitar with a very wide body, a zither, and conventional instruments used in highly unorthodox ways to throw you off track. The instruments with strings overlap with the instruments for wind, so even the "groups" interchange. .The guitar is beaten so the resonance in its body sings as if it were a primitive wind. The piccolos are tapped so sounds vibrate in curious patterns. Confusing, yet very rewarding, since the piece is constructed with the elegant symmetry of a good labyrinth. Also delightful - the guitarist/zitherist looked like Helmut Lachenmann ! Also on the Berlin programme, Maurizio Pollini playing Schumann Piano Concerto A moll Op 54 and an extremely fine Debussy's Images for orchestra.
In contrast, Widmann's Babylon Suite which, distilling a much larger work, is necessarily more episodic, probably reflecting what happens in the opera. Apparently, the opera deals with opulence and excess, and the defeat of an empire. Thus the snatches of melody, half formed and decontructed, fragments salvaged from a greater whole. Huge arcs in the orchestration like giant walls built of myriad cells, and delicate passages where solo winds sing, surrounded by a mist of strings. Though there are "obvious" passages like a jaunty military band, Widmann's Babylon Siuite isn't pictorial so much as a collage of multiple impressions in profusion. Just like Babylon itself, before it imploded.
Widmann is news, but the CBSO's Brahms Symphony no 1 was so good that it was headline, too. A superb performance, conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla , bringing out the richness in the piece. Almost inevitably Beethoven pops up whenever this symphony is discussed but it is distinctively Brahms. Grandeur, yes, and certainly in this confident and expansive performance. But Brahmsian signatures, too, like the recurring melody and even the suggestion of chorale. Schumann, too, hovers over the piece with probably even more personal significance.