Widmann: String Quartet No 1 - 5 / Leipzig String Quartet, Juliane Banse

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WIDMANN String Quartets: No. 1; No. 2, “Choral Quartet”; No. 3, “Hunting Quartet”; No. 4; No. 5, “Attempt at the Fugue” 1 Leipzig Str Qrt; Juliane Banse (sop) 1 MDG 307 1531 (76:44)

Born in 1973, Jörg Widmann has two careers: as a clarinetist, he teaches at the Freiburg College of Music, performs regularly, and has recorded music by Beethoven, Brahms, Harald Genzmer, and Wolfgang Rihm; as a composer who studied under Rihm, Wilfried Hiller, and Hans Werner Henze, his works are piling up European prizes with remarkable frequency. In the latter role, Widmann exhibits an interesting postmodern (if that word still has any relevance) conceptualism. These five compact, one-movement string quartets, for example, though composed over a period of years (1997–2005), when combined suggest the macro-structure of a single quartet—that is, the individual quartets serve the function of an “introduction,” “largo,” “scherzo,” “andante/passacaglia,” and “finale: quasi-fugue,” respectively. Whether or not Widmann had this scheme in mind from the very beginning is hard to say, but there is internal evidence that unifies and enhances their relationship, thematically and dramatically.

One of the conceptual features of Widmann’s music is a fluid blending of historical sounds and styles. The Quartet No. 3, for instance, takes its nickname from the familiar “hunting” rhythm adapted, in this case, from one of Robert Schumann’s Papillons , which gradually unravels into a more contemporary fabric of melodic fragments and disrupted rhythms (Widmann calls it “splinterizing” and “skeletalizing” the form). Quartet No. 2 is a reflection on death influenced by Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ ; some of the sparse music is recognizable (mournful chords that could be direct quotes) and some indistinct (non-pitched timbral effects), but the effect, while engaging, is more scene painting than movement towards a musical or emotional resolution. The Quartet No. 4 offers a walking bass line and ascending and descending patterns along with chiaroscuro textures; the sounds grow more mysterious as they drift away from the passacaglia’s theme, being somewhat reminiscent of George Rochberg’s interplay of harmonic references in his string quartets. The Quartet No. 5, longest of the sequence and the only one with a vocal component à la Schoenberg’s Second Quartet, deconstructs fugal strategies into episodes of contrasting shapes and tempos, offering close echoes of (if not actual quotes from) the Grosse Fugue and Art of Fugue . As for No. 1, it rises from silence with small Webernesque gestures, turns vigorous and frisky, is interrupted by silences, but builds to a convincing conclusion.

Widmann’s quartets are attractive, thought provoking, and well conceived, and I believe they actually work better when heard together as a connected entity than standing alone, where the occasional missteps, such as the clichéd shouts in No. 3 and the familiarity of material in No. 5, would be isolated and magnified. The benefit of having them on a single disc is the ability to choose which way you’d like to experience them.

FANFARE: Art Lange

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 3071531-2

  • UPC: 760623153124

  • Label: MDG

  • Composer: Jörg Widmann

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Leipzig String Quartet

  • Performer: Juliane Banse