Jörg Widmann and Claron McFadden with Irish Chamber Orchestra, at RDS Concert Hall, 9 April 2015

With ‘evolution’ the theme, tonight the Irish Chamber Orchestra, with principal guest conductor Jörg Widmann, takes a radical approach to musical form. Combining the roles of conductor, composer and clarinet soloist, Widmann likes to programme his own works alongside those of his predecessors, especially music of the Austro-German classical mainstream. Tonight is no exception as we hear his work played between pieces by Mozart and Mendelssohn.

The overture to Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ is treated crisply, the woodwind lines well-characterised alongside some gutsy, even heavy, string playing. Mozart’s uncanny modernism is emphasised in the Adagio and Fugue in C minor a piece that, re-exploring earlier baroque musical forms, is unafraid of creating moments of angular dissonance. The strings of the ICO create a lively tone, and the sense of intensity and drive continues, with an energetic performance.

Mozart’s engagement with early musical ideas provides the link to the piece that follows, Widmann’s Attempt at a Fugue, which uses the same Bach theme. Based on an earlier piece of his for string quartet and soprano singer, it is scored for soprano, oboe and string orchestra, and in this form gets its world premiere tonight. Widmann’s music recalls the Klangkomposition (noise-composition) style of late German modernism with its close interest in instrumental timbre – and the possible noises any instrument can make – as a structuring device. His Attempt at a Fugue suggests the layered musical traditions of the past while deconstructing them, which makes for an intense and at times challenging listening experience. Thematic ideas are concentrated, scattered, and abbreviated, and there is a playful engagement with the notion of fugue as ‘escape’.

Soprano Claron McFaddon is an arresting figure on the stage and she negotiates the complex lines and gestures with brilliant technical skill, singing with superb focus and smoothness of line. She returns to the stage in the second half for Widmann’s Sphinx’s Sayings & Riddle Canons for soprano, clarinet and piano, joined by pianist Gilles Vonsattel and Widmann himself playing the clarinet. The sonic experiments create enormous contrasts in dynamic intensity; the softness of the opening interweavings (and later occasional near-silences, punctuated only by visual gestures) displaced by percussive effects on the body of the piano, and multiphonic screams on the clarinet, with expert performances from all three.

After this, the lyrical enthusiasm of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 in D comes as a vivid contrast. The orchestra plays this piece with a lightness that their Mozart had somehow lacked, in lively and elegant performances that at times even project something of a ‘period’ sound. The lovely ensemble playing – especially at the top of the fourth movement, with its arrangement of the Lutheran chorale Ein Feste Burg – is supplemented by the rare appearance of a serpent (ancestor of the modern tuba) in the heavy brass, its deep buzz adding a welcome piquancy. In all, an oddly wide-ranging programme, but one which in the end has the audience on its feet.


Mozart: Overture to Don Giovanni, K. 527

Mozart: Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K. 546

Jörg Widmann: Attempt at a Fugue for soprano, oboe and string orchestra

Jörg Widmann: Sphinx’s Sayings & Riddle Canons for soprano, clarinet and piano

Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 5 in D major, Op. 107 (‘Reformation Symphony’)

Claron McFadden (soprano), Gilles Vonsattel (piano), Jörg Widmann (conductor/clarinet); Irish Chamber Orchestra