The second of three concerts given by the Artist-in-Residence of the 76th edition of the festival, German clarinetist and composer Jörg Widmann, allows us a look into his vibrant musical world. “The programme for his appearance with pianist Denis Kozhukhin incorporates music by Widmann favourites, Robert Schumann and Carl Maria von Weber, along with two examples of his own work which are influenced by the music of these Romantic composers,” says Programme Director Josef Třeštík.
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) was fond of the title Fantasiestücke (Fantasy Pieces), and he used it for several of his works. The poetic designation supports the fundamental Romantic notion that creative expression is the product of the artist’s unconstrained imagination. Moreover, the connotations of “fantasy” justify the rapid, often impulsive changes of mood. The three compositions within Fantasiestücke Op. 73 are indicated as follows: I. Tender and with expression; II. Lively, light; and III. Quick and with fire. The pieces, played without interruption, are changeable in both their outward and inner expression: the first in A minor begins with hints of melancholy but ends with a sense of resolution and hope; the second in A major is playful and positive; the final piece, again in A major, is driven into a sudden frenzy of passion, bordering on the irrational, as Schumann gives the indication “schneller und schneller” (faster and faster) and mercilessly pushes the players to their limits: they can only draw breath when the last piece ends exuberantly with a triumphant close.
Fantasie for Solo Clarinet, which Jörg Widmann wrote for himself at the age of nineteen, is founded on the characteristic romantic euphoria of youth, if with the addition of ironic allusions to popular clarinet articulation in dance, klezmer and jazz music. “Fantasie for Solo Clarinet is my first real piece for my own instrument, the clarinet. With its eccentric virtuosity and its cheerful, ironic fundamental character, it reflects the experience with Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet of 1919 and the tonal innovations which did not appear in music before Carl Maria von Weber’s notation for the clarinet, and takes them further in a new way. It is a little imaginary scene uniting the dialogues of different people in close proximity in the spirit of the commedia dell’arte.”
Conveying the spirit of Robert Schumann, Widmann’s Eleven Humoresques usher in the essential mood of this cycle of short piano pieces, which alternate Romantic expression with the contemporary musical idiom, as the composer indicates in his introduction and guide to the interpretation of the work: “I hope the performer will discover the characteristic tone of each piece and express this with a touch of mockery here, a dry touch there, and a touch of melancholy, yet always with humour and subtlety.” The premiere of Widmann’s Humoresques was held in New York’s Carnegie Hall on 4 May 2008 and performed at the piano by Yefim Bronfman, to whom the piece is dedicated.
Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) wrote Grand duo concertant Op. 48 in the years 1815-16, probably for himself and his friend, the clarinetist Heinrich Bärmann, although it is occasionally thought that the intended clarinetist was Johann Simon Hermstedt. The first movement Allegro con fuoco is written in sonata form, which is followed by the Andante in C minor and the finale, a spectacular rondo in E flat major. Two parts of the work, Andante and Rondo, were performed independently in 1815 at the Nymphenburg Palace in the presence of King Maximilian I Joseph of Bavaria, which led to the general assumption that Weber penned the introductory sonata-form Allegro con fuoco after the second and third movements. The British music critic John Warrack suggests that Weber’s Grand duo concertant could be referred to as a “double concerto without orchestra,” given the highly virtuosic parts of both instruments, in all respects surpassing the period requirements for players’ technical and musical skills; they remain the acid test of clarinetists and pianists to this day.
A native of Nizhny Novgorod, Denis Kozhukhin enjoys a reputation as one of the finest pianists of his generation. Winner of the celebrated Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels (2010), he regularly works with leading orchestras such as the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, the London Symphony Orchestra, Staatskapelle Berlin and the St Petersburg Philharmonic.
In 2018 he impressed the audience at the BBC Proms with Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, accompanied by the Aurora Orchestra under Nicholas Collon. The 2020-21 season sees his debut with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra under Robert Trevino, when he will perform Arnold Schönberg’s Piano Concerto Op. 42, and also his collaboration with the ADDA Simfònica and conductor Josep Vicent in a performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. He will also be appearing with Dutch violinist Janine Jansen, taking music by Brahms, Beethoven and Shostakovich on a tour of Europe and the United States and, in addition to the Prague Spring, he will travel to the Malta International Festival, Klavier Ruhr Festival and the Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival.
Denis Kozhukhin has been recording regularly since 2013. The critics were extremely impressed with his debut CD Prokofiev: The War Sonatas, which inspired The Scotsman to write: “This was remarkable; a performance of such rare quality it is difficult to light on vocabulary that might define the experience.” His first concert album Tchaikovsky & Grieg – Piano Concertos from 2016 was selected as the Editor’s Choice by Gramophone magazine, which stated at the time: “Listening to Kozhukhin, you’re left with one thing: the music – incontestable, complete.” Kozhukhin’s most recent solo album featuring music by Mendelssohn and Grieg was named Gramophone magazine’s Recording of the Month, and it also received two nominations for the Opus Klassik Award in the Solo Recording and Instrumentalist of the Year categories.
“It’s a great honour to be asked to assume the role of Artist-in-Residence at the Prague Spring. I’m delighted to accept it,” says German clarinetist and composer Jörg Widmann. “My work has taken me to virtually all the world’s music centres, but never to Prague, the city coveted by all those who love literature and music.” Widmann’s residency will include three concerts highlighting favourite composers who were key to his composition work, and featuring examples of his own music.
During the Chamber Music Weekend he will appear at St Agnes’ Convent, first with the superb Schumann Quartet (22 May), then in a recital with Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin (23 May). His residency will culminate in a performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major with the PKF-Prague Philharmonia headed by its Chief Conductor Emmanuel Villaume (31 May). He will also be giving a master class as part of his residency (30 May).
Born in Munich, Widmann’s route to composition led via his clarinet. He grew up in a musical family and his earliest memories are of his parents’ home music-making and a trip to the opera, where he heard Der Freischütz. To this day Weber is an absolute favourite of his, as attested by his Prague Spring concert with Denis Kozhukhin, and the album released in 2020 on the dynamic Alpha Classics label dedicated to this early Romantic.
Widmann began to play the clarinet at the age of seven, and as soon as he had managed to coax a few notes from the instrument, he began to improvise. Widmann himself stated that his desire to compose was born of the sorrow he felt for these forgotten improvisations. His memory wasn’t serving him well enough, so he finally got himself some manuscript paper.
In addition to his clarinet studies in Munich and later in New York at the prestigious Juilliard School, he sought consultation in his compositional endeavours from such heavyweights as Hans Werner Henze, Wolfgang Rihm and Heiner Goebbels. He had always admired Helmut Lachenmann and later met Pierre Boulez as well. Unlike his contemporaries, who had posters of David Bowie and Michael Jackson in their rooms, young Jörg had Pierre Boulez on his wall. And while Germany’s young generation cultivated and embraced the emerging techno scene wholeheartedly in the early Nineties, 20-year-old Widmann was diligently composing and, inspired by this pulsating rhythmic genre, he came up with the piece 180 beats per minute. He apparently never attended any techno gigs; what was far more important for him was the unusually rich and colourful musical history of the genre to which he dedicated his life and his music. His works reflect an intricate web of characteristic gestures, intimated, vague quotations, respectful nods to the past, and sly references ranging from Bach to his own contemporaries. “Jörg Widmann is very much a child of our time. Everything is accessible, and he takes in these influences. So his music can be chaotic when you first hear it, it’s complex, it can be very melodic, it can even be kitschy sometimes. But it’s done with a purpose.”
These were the words pronounced by Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Möst when he conducted Widmann’s Trauermarsch in Carnegie Hall in 2009, expressing the reasons for the artist’s renown as a composer. Now forty-seven, Widmann has seen his music appearing regularly on the concert programmes of traditional symphony orchestras over the last few years – the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and many others. The Czech Philharmonic has performed his work as well. We will frequently also find his name on programmes for concerts given by ensembles specialising in contemporary music, such as Ensemble Intercontemporain and Klangforum Wien, to mention two high-profile chamber orchestras. He has published more than 100 of his compositions, including twenty orchestral works, around ten instrumental concertos, and a full-length opera, Babylon.
If there’s a simple explanation for Widmann’s openness to influences from the past – take his Con brio, for instance, which quite clearly manifests the ethos of Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies – it seems to lie with his parallel stellar career as a clarinetist. He has performed chamber music with the likes of András Schiff, Daniel Barenboim and Mitsuko Uchida. As a soloist he has appeared with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Orchestre National de France, Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich and the Vienna Philharmonic. Moreover, many composers have written works expressly for him, such as his mentor and teacher Wolfgang Rihm, Mark Andre, or Czech composer and member of the Prague Spring Artistic Board, Miroslav Srnka.
“How does one cope creatively with the pressure of that long classical tradition?” asks The Guardian. “I’m humble,” he states with an awkward grin. “As a player, I’m in touch with these masterworks every day. I love them! So I write pieces about my love.”
As one might surmise from his Prague Spring concerts, the essence of Widmann’s individuality is chiefly rooted in his regard for the legacy of the Classical and Romantic composers. The fervour and passion with which he speaks of the music of Weber, Mendelssohn, Schumann or Mahler is infectious. His profound knowledge of the Classical repertoire is inspirational. The expression of humility conveyed to The Guardian is not exaggerated: He received requests to write a clarinet quintet on many occasions, but he long declined the offers – he regards Mozart’s and Brahms’s quintets as works of genius and he felt he should first mature as a composer before embarking upon a piece for the same instrumental ensemble. His love for the German Romantics is also reflected in the titles of his works – the trilogy for orchestra Lied, Chor and Messe, Trauermarsch for piano and orchestra, which he wrote for pianist Yefim Bronfman, or Teufel Amor [Devil Cupid], a large-scale orchestral piece, inspired by a fragment of Schiller’s poem of the same name, which reads: “Sweet Amor, remain in melodic flight”. Widmann interprets the line of verse by stating that, in love, as in music, we try to capture something indefinable, something that goes beyond us and brings us to wonderment and also to despair. Such is the mystery of life and art.