tue 28/05/2024

Widmann, BBCSO, Oramo, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Widmann, BBCSO, Oramo, Barbican

Widmann, BBCSO, Oramo, Barbican

Spirited premiere for innovative new concerto

Carolin Widmann: lyrical lines and tonal focusLennard Rühle

The BBC Symphony Orchestra has continued its long-standing support of British contemporary music with this première of a new commission, Michael Zev Gordon’s Violin Concerto for violinist C

arolin Widmann. Gordon’s music deals in abstracts – new and old, familiar and unfamiliar, simple and complex – but with an unusual directness and clarity of expression. The concerto is not a virtuoso showpiece, but rather an exploration of the lyrical and expressive qualities of Widmann’s playing. It proved an ideal match, with Widmann here making the best possible case for the new work.

Widmann’s tone, while lyrical, also has an attractive woody burr. Gordon exploited this from the start, with the opening passage performed high up on the G-string to intensity the effect. The concerto unfolds as a gradual broadening of expression, from the bold simplicity of this opening, through gradually more complex orchestral textures, although even these based on the same, simple motifs. Gordon’s focus on lyricism results in a solo line almost devoid of virtuoso effects, with no pizzicato or double-stopping until the third movement cadenza. Until then, the solo part consists of a single, continually varying melodic line. Yet there is a real feeling of substance, and nothing seems decorative.

Carolin Widmann was on the composer’s wavelength throughout

The plaintive simplicity of the first movement gives way to faster and more dynamic music in the second. Minimalism plays a role, with repeating figures in the celesta and bassoon interlocking with the solo line. In his programme note, Gordon describes these as "child-like patterns", suggesting he feels no great debt to the minimalist pioneers. And, indeed, the association is brief and the music soon moves into other areas. At the start of the third movement, the strings interpose with a loud minor triad, an effect which cleverly accentuates the wayward atonality up to this point. But this, and occasional later triads appear in isolation, like every other codified technique, tonality kept at arm’s length. Eventually, the music returns to the naive simplicity of the opening, with the concerto ending in an unadorned, lyrical coda, the appropriately prosaic performance direction: Always simple.

Carolin Widmann was on the composer’s wavelength throughout. Her ability to maintain concentration and tonal focus across long, winding lines, ranging freely across the instrument’s range, was clearly a source of inspiration, and a key to the success of this performance. The orchestra, too, gave a spirited and direct reading, no doubt aided by Gordon’s idiomatic writing.

Sakari OramoSakari Oramo (pictured left, by Benjamin Ealovega) began the concert with the Overture to Kabalevsky’s opera Colas Breugnon. It’s a piece of boisterous 1930s Socialist Realism, with comic interludes and overblown climaxes. The orchestra gave a suitably upbeat account, a little rough round the edges but with enough rhythmic bite to keep the energy levels high across its short duration.

Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony made up the second half, and received a committed and intense interpretation. Oramo took care not to labour the grinding, monotonous tuttis of the first movement. His opening tempo was on the fast side, although the rich lower string tone ensured plenty of atmosphere. Gorgeous clarinet solos, from Richard Hosford, brought a human dimension to the music later in the movement, and woodwind solos throughout the symphony  – from bassoon, flute, cor anglais – were all ideal. Oramo is clearly happy to take the players outside their comfort zone with loud dynamics, and sometimes the tonal quality suffers, as with the strings in the second movement, and the brass in the fourth. But he also knows how to pace the build-up to those climaxes so that they achieve their full effect. And he has the measure of Shostakovich’s dark comedy, perfectly judging the contrasts between the tutti outbursts and the sardonic woodwind solos as the finale draws to a close. Not the most anguished or soul-searching of Shostakovich interpretations then, but one that addressed every facet of the composer’s complex musical personality.


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