Jörg Widmann (*1973): Idyll and Abyss (2009)

Idyll and Abyss, subtitled "Six Schubert Reminiscences", was conceived to complement a performance of Schubert's final Sonata in B Flat Major D960 and is one of several piano works by Jörg Widmann that refer specifically to a great composer of the past. Other similar cycles include the Intermezzi (Brahms), the Humoresken (Schumann), the Sonatina facile (Mozart) and the Sonata "Fleurs du mal", which refers to many French composers, but principally Pierre Boulez. Many works by Widmann for other instrumentations refer similarly to the past, such as the Flute Concerto (Bach), the Overture "Con Brio" (Beethoven), and numerous others. By Widmann's own testimony, the past is a constant presence in his music and a deep source of inspiration, in contrast to some 20th century composers who saw their task as to eradicate and replace it with something entirely new. A listener may remark that Widmann's music, whether referring to the past or not, sounds eminently musical, even when using unusual playing techniques. It is probably no coincidence that electronic sounds remain absent from his scores, all sounds being produced by traditional instruments, albeit in sometimes unconventional ways.

The past, then, is never far away in Widmann's music, and it might be difficult to establish any of his works that do not in some way refer to other composers. This group of works for the piano however goes beyond a general respect for the titans of old and ventures towards detailed explorations of specific composers. Some of these features are stated by Widmann in accompanying programme notes, but the relationship between model and exploration is of course much more varied and complex, and differs from work to work. Whilst some pieces contain actual quotes from older compositions, in most cases Widmann refrains from literal reproduction, preferring to use textures and progressions favoured by the respective model, in each case making the identity of this model very clear. The surrounding context of these features is mostly Widmann's own, leading to a balance between tonal and traditional elements and the free, atonal, dissonant music of Widmann's own style. This balance varies, with some movements almost completely tonal, as in No. 4 of Idyll and Abyss, and others completely original in style.

Idyll and Abyss contains six movements of varying lengths, all without titles. Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 6 display the most overtly Schubertian features, whilst Nos 3 & 5 function as shorter moments of free reflection. No. 1 is a quasi-tonal introduction, with slow cadential chord progressions initially rising above a soft deep tone cluster, then expanding in range before finally subsiding, punctuated by somewhat shrill descending clusters in the high registers. The progressions are quite tonal with added dissonances, and include typical oscillations between major and minor chords, emulating the static quality sometimes found in Schubert's slow movements. The atmosphere of something fairly conventional, seen through a haze of dissonance, owes much to Ravel's La Valse, although this is a much quieter, hypnotic affair.

In between the literal quotes and the loose stylistic borrowing, Widmann often works with a blend of original elements, making passages sound as if they were genuine Schubert, even if they are not. No. 2 blends elements from the Wanderer Fantasy with the B Flat Major Impromptu D 935 No.3, as well as allusions to other works. The key of C Sharp Minor is from the former, as well as the dactylic rhythm. This rhythm is also shared by the Impromptu, which in turn lends the melodic contours of the theme, in particular the concluding turn. The initial theme is presented after a brief setting of the scene, followed by a set of free variations, interrupted by various episodes: at first excursions of major and minor tonality, after which the increasingly agitated theme seems to disintegrate, only to come to life again. The following episode moves from E to to C Major, a typically Schubertian shift, leading to one of the few actual Schubert quotes - a low trill recalling the first movement of the final Piano Sonata in B Flat. The trill, brief and soft at first, is repeated twice, the final time longer and loudly, in the same manner as in the repeat bars from that movement; tellingly, it is this version of the trill, the disturbing, often questioned version, that Widmann is interested in, rather than the discreet and perhaps politer version at the beginning of the movement. The final statement of the theme is then violently interrupted by an angry chord of G Minor and an anxious, fleeting escape into the distance.

The third piece carries the performance instruction "like a music box", and requests the pianist to keep both hands always apart. It is perhaps the most enigmatic of the six pieces in that it has the least obvious connection with Schubert, at least in a purely musical sense. The feeling of a pretty music box tune gradually unwinding into meaninglessness, the effect of time on something beautiful, the beauty in itself of time gradually being suspended, all these may be deeper references relevant to Schubert, but are purely conjectural. Possibly more relevant was the need for a moment of stillness between the two main items in the collection, as well as a return to a more tonally free canvas between the two most tonal pieces.

The fourth piece is the most humorous of the set. It recalls the numerous dances Schubert wrote, principally for the piano, but also for many other instruments. Interestingly, it is mainly in duple time, a meter rare in the world of Schubert dances, where the vast majority are in forms of triple time. However, part of the humorous nature of the piece is its constantly changing aspect, which also includes some sudden changes from duple to triple time and back again. Other unpredictable aspects are the constantly changing speed, articulation, mood - even a spot of whistling required from the pianist. It is a very vivacious piece, full of jokes, and full of Schubert. This is in spite of the fact that Schubert himself is not particularly known for the prominence of humour in his music, which often seems too self-absorbed to comment on itself. Two moments in the piece seem to reach beyond Schubert: at one point Widmann adds a note: "The other poet speaks". This refers to the last of Schumann's Kinderszenen, "The poet speaks". Schumann seems to be a constant presence in Widmann's music, and was of course instrumental in exploring and publishing Schubert's music. At the conclusion of this piece the carefree dance is interrupted by the sound of a distant horn call, again possibly a reference to Schumann, who was much more interested in nature and tone painting than Schubert.

Both of these small excursions highlight a central issue in this kind of composer homage/exploration. Any vision of a composer from the past is also an interpretation of them, placing them in a specific context. Busoni's Bach transcriptions only make sense when played in a romantic manner, regardless of how one might oneself place Bach. Liszt's arrangements of Schubert's songs also demand a certain view of the music - to attempt to play them with a different approach goes against the grain of the settings. In these pieces Widmann is clearly seeing a Schubert related to the schizophrenia of Schumann, a composer of melody, of extreme contrasts, of heaven and hell, of Idyll and Abyss. It is these aspects of Schubert that Widmann highlights, aspects that also interest him in Schumann and Baudelaire, who provided the inspiration for another of Widmann's piano works, the Sonata "Fleurs du mal". Another facet that supports this romantic view of Schubert is the highly changeable rhythm that constantly switches between triplet and semiquaver divisions, mostly against the respective other, leading to a sort of notated rubato that rarely allows left and right hands to combine. On some occasions he adds the specific request to keep the hands apart. This near permanent dislocation and rubato, together with constant changes of tempo, not only gives the music a definite romantic character but also downgrades the importance of rhythm in a more classical, architectural sense. This is definitely the Schubert of the future, the inspiration for Liszt, rather than the classical composer who idolized Haydn and found Beethoven's musical experiments bizarre.

No. 5 is another short, enigmatic piece, forming a buffer between the energy of the previous and the tragedy of the following. It begins with a series of ascending chords, echoing the conclusion of No.4, but is interrupted by a short outburst and gradually diminishing clusters, returning to the initial sequence. It is reflective, then unsettling, and concludes with a questioning gesture, perhaps looking to the next piece for reassurance.

The final piece, however, does not give this reassurance. It opens with a tragic, desolate sounding F Minor phrase that is supported in the left hand in a different key, E Major, undermining the legitimacy of the right hand's lament. The C Major sequence from No.2 returns briefly to lead back to E Major and F Minor, this time one after the other, followed by another direct quote from the opening of the B Flat Piano Sonata. The movement seems to conclude in F Sharp Minor, only to shift again to G Minor for the last bar. The end seems to come with a profound sense of exhaustion, a feeling that all hope and strength has ebbed away.

When one recalls that this set was conceived to accompany the great B Flat Sonata in a recital, these keys all make sense, as they are central keys throughout the Sonata. Indeed, the quotes are taken from it, and many of its features mirror those of the Sonata: Heaven and hell are never far away in Schubert, but rarely as close as in the second and third movements of D960, where their proximity is such as to cause significant problems for the performer in reconciling them. Other parallels also become clearer: in No.2, the rhythm and key invoke the Wanderer Fantasy, but in fact the key is that of the second movement of D960, and the melodic lines also bear a strong resemblance. But even without that Sonata, Idyll and Abyss paints a wonderfully varied and beautiful vision of Schubert, a fellinesque exploration where little is exact but all exudes a deep authenticity of experience.



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