Jörg Widmann: Elegie (CD Review)

Jörg Widmann

Widmann, clarinet; Heinz Holliger, oboe;
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, Christoph Poppen, conductor

ECM New Series 2110

39 year old Jörg Widmann is a virtuoso clarinetist and one of Germany’s rising stars in the realm of music composition. Both of these aspects of his talents are on display in a new portrait disc released by ECM Records. Christoph Poppen, one of the label’s mainstays (another multi-talented musician – a fine violinist and conductor) leads the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie in a program that displays Widmann as a musician with a diversity of interests and a multi-faceted compositional toolkit to match.

The disc’s title work features Widmann playing a plethora of extended techniques, haloed by orchestral writing that is primarily atmospheric with occasional fierce outbursts. Messe, despite its moniker and movement titles mirroring the Ordinary of the liturgy, is for large orchestra sans voices. Fastidious attention is given to contrapuntal details in several “contrapuncti” movements. Elsewhere a juxtaposition of weighty tutti and long-breathed angular melodies provide some surprising textural shifts.

Fünf Bruchstücke (1997) are early works that feature clarinet and oboe. The latter duties are fulfilled by oboist/composer Heinz Holliger (another formidable double threat!). The two are given many opportunities to display the extended technical capabilities of their respective instruments. But it is the sense of cat and mouse interaction and the energetic elan that typifies much of the compositions’ demeanor that make them far more captivating than many a virtuoso showcase.

Widmann weds musicality and technical facility seamlessly. While the episodic nature of this program gives tantalizing glimpses of his potential, one looks forward to the composer/clarinetist expanding his horizons to larger formal designs on a future recording.

Noteworthy in 2011 – Reto Bieri: Contrechant on ECM (CD Review)

Reto Bieri, clarinet
Works by Berio, Carter, Eötvös, Holliger, Sciarrino, and Vajda

ECM New Series CD 2209

One of the best recital discs I heard in 2011 did not feature an instrument typically associated with the genre. Contrechant is a disc comprised of all contemporary works performed by Swiss clarinetist Reto Bieri. All solos: no piano accompaniment or contributions from other instrumentalists. But the proceedings are hardly monophonic or monochromatic. Even Luciano Berio’s  Lied (1983), which opens the disc with a phrase or so gently articulated “song-like” melody, does not remain a “single line” piece for long: this texture is complicated by repeated note ostinati and wide-ranging leaps.  While Lied isn’t as hypervirtuosic as the clarinet Sequenza, it proves to be an elegant introduction to the rigorous material that will be found on the disc, as well as the formidable technical skill and focused interpretative powers possessed by Bieri. Indeed, Contrechant is a showcase for the clarinet’s versatility and its extensive repertoire of extended techniques.

A case in point is “Lightshadow-trembling,” by Hungarian (now residing in the US) composer, conductor, and clarinetist Gergely Vajda. The piece spends a great deal of its duration requiring the clarinetist to perform pedal tones in conjunction with a compound melody and copious trilling, creating a far denser texture than many listeners would assume possible when presented with the mislabel “single line instrument.” After this sustained, breathless (or, rather, circular breathed) flurry, late in the piece, Vajda allows the clarinetist to attack single sustained notes: the resultant starkness is startling. This was the first piece I’ve heard from Vajda: I look forward to hearing more.

One of Vajda’s teachers, the acclaimed composer and conductor Peter Eötvös, contributes a very different work: Derwischtánz. It is lyrical and questing, with beautiful runs that start in the chalumeau register and cascade up to long, sustained, pianissimo notes in the instrument’s upper register to end each phrase. A few trills at the work’s close seem to serve as foreshadowing for Vajda’s later perambulations.

“Let me die before I wake,” by Salvatore Sciarrino revels in extended techniques, such as  multiphonics and whistle tones. But these never seem gimmicky; instead they give the clarinet an otherworldly, “sci-fi” ambiance that is quite haunting. Virtuoso oboist and composer Heinz Holliger knows a thing or two about wind instruments. His Contrechant (2007) cast in five short movements, takes up where Sciarrino leaves off, putting the clarinet through its paces, including extraordinary measures: slap tonguing, extended glissandi, vocalizations, microtones, and  altissimo register squalls. It is a bracing, yet dramatically compelling, ultra-modernist composition. More reflective, although still possessing considerable angularity and a wildly shifting demeanor, is Rechant (2008), a through-composed companion piece.

This is Bieri’s second recording of Elliott Carter’s Gra (1993), one of the ‘early’ works of the now 103 year-old composer’s ‘late’ period. It is one of a number of relatively brief single movement piecess that Carter penned during the 90s and 00s and, I believe, one of his best. In Gra, for the most part  Carter eschews the special effects employed by the aforementioned composers; he instead displays absolute command, both of the instrument’s idiomatic capabilities and of a rigorously compressed harmonic and gestural language. The piece’s exquisite pacing and, for Carter, relatively new found directness of expression, make it one of the great works for solo clarinet. Since his first recording of the piece, Bieri’s interpretation has grown, is ever more sure-footed and specific in all of its details: I’m glad he recorded it a second time. Let’s hope ECM invites him back to make another CD. Pairing him with one of the label’s many talented pianists could make for a deadly duo disc.

Setting Stephen John Kalinich

1/1/2012 – Despite my stepping back, editing, and taking stock, I still managed to finish one more piece in 2011: a short unaccompanied SATB setting of “My Kiss is a Journey…”, a poem by Stephen John Kalinich. Stevie is an accomplished poet, songwriter, and lyricist. He’s probably best known for his poems “If You Knew…” and “A World of Peace Must Come,” as well as for supplying lyrics for several songs by the Beach Boys. But these works just scratch the surface of his varied and prolific career.

I began corresponding with Stevie a few years ago, after writing about his CD A World of Peace Must Come. He was kind enough to allow Kay and I to read one of his poems as part of our wedding ceremony in 2009. I’m delighted that Stevie allowed me to set some of his poetry to music.

My kiss is a journey
From Gods lips
Who blew me into being
You can hear a faint echo
If you listen intently
Beyond the silence is the Hmmm
Of Creation continuing

-Stephen John Kalinich

I posted a MIDI demo of the piece over at Soundcloud (embed below). Instead of vocal “oo’s” and “ah’s,” the “out-of-the-box” software synth solution, I opted to substitute clarinets for the voices. If any choirs are interested in the piece, please be in touch.

My Kiss is a Journey midi demo by cbcarey

Stevie’s latest recording is California Feeling, a compilation of various artists recording his songs, lyrics, and poetry.

Oakes demonstrates Ueno’s extensions

Throughout the year, Ken Ueno has been in residence at the American Academy in Berlin . But this week is one of the big events of his time there. Ueno is giving a portrait concert. Subtitled “Archaeologies of the Future” it includes both European musicians and some of his finest advocates from America, including violist Wendy Richman and clarinetist Greg Oakes.

Below, Oakes demonstrates some of the extended techniques used in Ueno’s resonant noise of the sea.

Ken Ueno
Disabitato für Klavier (2007)
Kizu für Koto und Stimme (2006)
Two Hands für Viola und Schlagzeug (2009)
I screamed at the sea until nodes swelled up, then my voice became the resonant noise of the sea für Klarinette (2006)
Improvisation für Stimme und mikrotonale Tuba
Talus für Viola und Streicherensemble (2007)

Heather O’Donnell Klavier
Kyoko Kawamura Koto/Stimme
Kim Kashkashian / Wendy Richman Viola
Greg Oakes Klarinette
Robin Hayward mikrotonale Tuba
Robyn Schulkowsky Schlagzeug
Ken Ueno Stimme

ensemble unitedberlin
Stanley Dodds, Leitung