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Leipzig String Quartet: "Jörg Widmann - String Quartets"

img  Tobias

At the age of 36, German Composer Jörg Widman has already achieved the unthinkable in many respects. He has made a name for himself as an in-demand Clarinetist. He's a professor of music. Three festivals this season alone have been dedicated to his music. He has entered a meaningful relationship with the visual arts by collaborating with his compatriot Anselm Kiefer on a widely acclaimed installation. His work is printed, promoted and supported by one of the world's premiere publishing houses (Schott), recorded by some of the contemporary music scene's leading labels and performed by respected instrumentalists. The BBC talks to him. The Guardian writes about him. A continuously growing audience listens to his oeuvre, which is fanning out into opera and chambermusic, rich orchestral works and pieces for solo instruments. And yet, he has managed all of this without staging a revolution, preaching a new style or creating a scandal.

Widman's five String Quartets reveal why everybody wants a piece of him at the moment: They are conceptual without ever turning top-heavy. Smart but not smart-ass. Dense, yet airy. Both confident and questioning. Contemporary and still filled to the brim with references to the past. With their echoes of tonality and form on the one hand and their salute to Haydn and Schumann on the other, they mediate between the genre's earliest incantations and a future whose exact outlines can still only be guessed at. Conceived as a cycle of self-sufficient entities, they can be appreciated on a comparatively clearly laid-out cellular level as well as within the context of a larger, more complex framework. Listening to each quartet by itself will uncovers hidden details, while consuming to the pentaptych in its entirety lays bare unsuspected connections. Like a five-note chord, these pieces all relate to each other in the most nuanced ways, opening up slowly but intensely.

As part of the aforementioned overarching architecture, each work has been assigned a clear purpose. The first String Quartet, which rises sleepily from casual tunings and flimsy overtones, is an opening, presenting many beginnings and no endings. Harmonies are spliced up. Melodic arches aborted. Poetic sequences run into cul-de-sacs, as aggressive outcries bounce from one instrument to the next. Abstractions and allusions paint stark metaphors on a white canvas, invisible hands scribble violent dillusionary images in black ink. Around the nine-minute mark, the voices unite into a rich, resonant drone. The finale, however, consists of confusion, disturbed motives searching for the light.

A forlorn chord sequence marks the introduction of the second String Quartet, which will drift and drown inside an endless ocean of creaking noises and plaintive attempts at gaining strength for its entire 13-minute duration. String Quartet three, a guaranteed crowdpleaser in concert halls, borrows from Schumann's „Papillons“. Like a lumberjack in action, Widmann saws apart his theme until it resembles the blood-stained mouth of a ravenous monster while the performers holler and scream it out, imitating the agitated shouts of a hunt. What begins as a comedy ends in deadly serious death throes as part of a morbid deformation process.

Quiet and unassuming, the fourth String Quartet requires several visits to leave an impact. Widmann uses Pizzicato-techniques in all instruments as a continuous transparent slide, backlit by achingly beautiful harmonies. Like a multilayered version of Samuel Barber's „Adagio for Strings“, Widmann attains a maximum contrast between emotional fragility and emphatic force here, avoiding trivial climaxes and instead focusing on building a subcutaneous sensation of bewildering consolation. It is almost as if the players were trying to remember the score by heart, feeling their way forward in slow-motion, stumbling over the notes in the semi-darkness of their lonely room.

The emptiness conveyed by this discreet work is immediately counterpointed by the concluding fifth String Quartet, however, entitled „Attempt at the Fugue“. Easily the most anthemic of the series, it clocks in at almost half an hour and recruits the services of a Soprano (Juliane Banse on this occasion). Both in terms of arrangement and instrumentation, the piece conveys a sense of orchestral dimensions. Elements from all previous installments are picked up and reworked. Motives are presented, torn apart and reconciled in the end. When the curtain falls, the slate appears clean again.

„There is nothing new under the sun“, the lyrics to the fifth String Quartet (a biblical rerefence) claim, but Widmann has certainly succeeded in making his audience feel otherwhise. By leaving easily identifiable clues in his music, he is allowing his listeners to participate in the unfolding of his ideas. Breathing noises and „extended techniques“ are not a goal in themselves but provide colour, detail and stimulation. Single notes and truncated themes are awarded uncommon expressivity. Most of all, he has found a highly personal ways of reinvigorating harmony by considering individual chords both functional elements in a system and as sheets of texture and pulsation, which can be presented as objects with artistic value on their own. At many times, his pieces seem strangely drawn apart, as though someone were holding a finger to the Vinyl spinning on his record player. But in comparison to many of his colleagues, musical events are never isolated. They are connected by a stringent narrative, the breath of a creative mind. It is this delicate control he is keeping at all times which makes his music sound distinctly inviting and immersive. And it is also this story-telling quality which makes him achieve the unthinkable where others would falter.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Jörg Widmann
Homepage: Leipzig String Quartet
Homepage: Juliane Banse
Homepage: MDG Recordings

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