Jörg Widmann is one of the most exciting musicians of our time. The world’s best orchestras commission new works from him, while he also plays on the most prestigious stages worldwide as a clarinettist. Before his recital at Wigmore Hall, where he is this season’s artist in residence, I met the Bavarian to talk about Weber and contemporary music, the magic of this “old woodwind instrument” and about how to find the right balance between composing and playing the clarinet.

Jörg Widmann © Marco Borggreve
Jörg Widmann
© Marco Borggreve

“It would be wonderful if it was a Mozart piece.” Widmann can’t remember why he eventually chose the clarinet as a kid. “I was attending early music education and one day I came home – at least that’s what my parents say – and said that I wanted to play the clarinet.” When he starts describing the clarinet and the fascination of this instrument, his eyes begin to sparkle. “Of course, it’s the diversity, but also the magic of the sound. The ability to develop the sound from nothing and to let it vanish into nothing. You can see the clarinettist physically standing, but the sound – ideally – seems to come from a different world. Out of this fascination, I developed or invented many sounds myself. And I’m sure there are many more things possible on this old woodwind instrument, things we haven’t even thought of.”

Wolfgang Rihm wrote his Music for Clarinet and Orchestra for Jörg Widmann and the clarinettist sees it as the duty of the performer to make new things, new sounds possible. “When I first saw it I thought, well, who should play that? Definitely not me. How should I do this? It’s the same with Schumann’s Fantasiestücke which we play tonight. Every clarinettist knows it’s extremely difficult, because there are no breaks. You actually play for 13 minutes straight and then he even writes attacca between the movements. The Rihm Clarinet Concerto is like Schumann, but three times; there’s only one break after 35 minutes. I started working out like a real athlete so I can play it, which helped with other pieces as well.”

Widmann is not only a clarinettist, but also a much sought after composer. I wonder how difficult it is for him to keep the composer inside him quiet when others write new pieces for him. “I don’t hold them back, I encourage them to write the impossible. If they ask me if something is possible, I say, write it first and then I’ll try. It was like this with Heinz Holliger, with Wolfgang Rihm, with Aribert Reimann, with everyone who has ever written a piece for me. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto was considered unplayable, and today, they play it in during their first year at the conservatoire. If the violinist had said that it wasn’t possible, we wouldn’t have it today.”

“That’s why I often try it for a few weeks and I use this opportunity to find new sounds which can inspire the composer in return. I think music history has always worked liked this. Take the Queen of the Night's aria for example. I believe, although we can’t be sure, Mozart heard the soprano warming up and at some point he asked ‘How far can you go? Can you do this with the high F?’ Apparently, this soprano could and he wrote this modern aria, “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen”. This whole phrase is basically without any words, it’s only vowels. Also the duet of Papagena and Papageno at the end, you somehow have to come up with this, it’s new music!”

He started composing by improvising on the clarinet, because he found it was a pity that he couldn’t remember it the next day. “I still had to learn that it can be much more painful and complicated sometimes. Today, I still think it’s a wonderful definition, that composition is the written improvisation.” It certainly can’t be easy to find the right balance between the clarinet and composing, but it seems like Widman has found the right way for him. “If we’d had this conversation in the middle of the 18th century, it wouldn’t have been worth mentioning, because everyone would have played at least one instrument, composed and conducted. It was only in the middle of the 19th century that it started to differ. Suddenly there was this maestro type, the conductor. At the same time the virtuoso type evolved, with Paganini, with Liszt. And then, in his quiet chamber, there was this quirky or brilliant composing person. For me, this entity never stopped existing, even if it’s more difficult in practice.”

Jörg Widmann © Marco Borggreve
Jörg Widmann
© Marco Borggreve

“One fertilises the other, but of course there’s not always enough time for everything. During a composition phase, I practise a little bit every day to keep technically fit. It’s more difficult when it comes to composing. When I’m on tour, I no longer try to compose as well. I did this four, five years ago, but my body can’t do this anymore, even though it was fun. That’s why I try to separate these phases. The piece doesn’t ask. Of course I can write a double barline, but if it’s not finished I can’t hand it in. These phases are the most exhausting ones. But even then: it’s something wonderful to go on stage in the evening. And to practise. I’m incredibly grateful that I can do all that!”

Widmann finds inspiration for his compositions in a variety of things. “It can be stories, an encounter, it can be a love – this was the case for a work I wrote for the Vienna Philharmonic, Teufel Amor. Personal things play a role, literature, poetry, painting, sculptures. There’s almost nothing that couldn’t inspire me.” But he also finds inspiration in the sounds of an orchestra or individual instruments. “The idea is a gift, I can’t help it, it is an escalation. Boulez calls it a lightning of inspiration, a term you wouldn’t necessarily associate with him.”

When it comes to the development of the idea, he calls himself “old-fashioned, Beethovian, or Schoenbergian, Hegelian. I would carry the idea for weeks. It is bare, exposed, wonderful, and then I start questioning it, every day a little bit more. And eventually there comes this point of no return, then I have to write it.” Although Widmann has acquired a craft and lots of experience over the years, he still starts every new work at zero. “Every second note will feel wrong and it will be an accelerando of the composing process. For me, the most exciting moments of composing are those when the piece wants to go in a different direction to my original idea. Most of the times, the piece is right, but sometimes I have to force it in a certain direction… it is a very difficult decision.”

As artist in residence with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Widmann will return to Birmingham for one more programme. “I’m doing this residency, because I trust Mirga [Gražinytė-Tyla] who called me one day, and because I knew it would work wonderfully and so it’s a great joy and a great honour to work with Birmingham.” A concert that sees him as a soloist, conductor and composer, certainly brings its challenges. “Of course, I do this every now and then, but it’s far from easy. I usually try to play the clarinet concerto before I conduct, because the movements are different or I have to programme a little piece in between, like these 180 beats per minute where the orchestra plays on its own. I find it exciting to see things from different angles and trying to influence them. In the end, it’s always chamber music, or at least that’s what I hope for. The more redundant I am as a conductor, the better.”

Besides the Brahms Sonatas, Widmann played Schumann’s Fantasiestücke and Alban Berg’s 4 Pieces for Clarinet and Piano with András Schiff in the mentioned concert at Wigmore Hall. “For me, this [Berg] is one of the greatest music of the 20th century. Every note is sacred to me.” Yet, Carl Maria von Weber is especially close to his heart. “I would put him on a very high level, like the composers of his time and after him did. Debussy and Stravinsky weren’t especially keen on Germanic music – out of an anti-Wagnerism – but they appreciated Weber. Debussy once said, that today we think we orchestrate in a refined way, but Weber did so a hundred years before us. And Stravinsky once called him the Prince of Music. For me, it was Weber who brought these innovations to the Romantic orchestra, the orchestration technique. He wrote with a daring tonality, way above Wagner.”

Jörg Widmann © Marco Borggreve
Jörg Widmann
© Marco Borggreve

While many clarinettists help developing new instruments, Widmann mostly plays on his Wurlitzer clarinet from his student time. “I also play on new instruments, but funnily enough, I always come back to this clarinet. I love it with all my heart and all its faults. I even love the faults.” For Birmingham, he found one of only five existing old Wurlitzers that are tuned at 440 Hz. “There’s this wonderful Swiss clarinettist, Harald Strebel, who lent it to me. I played the tour with this A clarinet and fell in love with this sound, because it’s even darker. Now I play the Weber Concerto with the 440 Hz B♭ clarinet which is also exquisite. It was built by the old Wurlitzer himself, during the legendary golden times. These really are great instruments.”

In order to attach the reed to the mouthpiece Widmann doesn’t use the traditional ligature, but a string. “I grew up with it. Then I went to America and studied at Juillard. I tried using the ligature, but I came back to the string.” Every clarinettist knows how hard and exhausting it can be to find a good reed, but Widmann looks at it as a journey. “There’s never a definite answer, it always continues. Even though we played the Brahms Sonatas yesterday, we will play them differently today, everything else would bore us. Specific things, elements will be similar, but I would be deeply saddened if it was exactly the same. My mentality is far too curious.”

But even if you guard your best reed like gold, accidents can happen. “I once destroyed my favourite chamber music reed in Berlin. For years I played all Mozart and Brahms Quintets with it; it was an indestructible reed. We played an unforgettable concert with members of the Staatskapelle and directly after the concert we were talking and taking pictures and one wrong movement… it really hurt. I label the reeds with the cities I play them in or for which concert I use them. But of course they are subject to fluctuations. For example, yesterday after arriving in London they sounded different than today on a rainy day. We feel it, we clarinettists.” But even on this rainy day, Jörg Widmann enthralled the audience at Wigmore Hall with his “London” reed and his expressive playing.