In all but name, last night’s City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra concert was a portrait of Jörg Widmann, showcasing his talents as composer, conductor and clarinettist. As such, the event was a welcome deviation from the norms of concert planning, not simply in terms of timeframe – combining Classical and contemporary music – but in terms of scale, featuring a string sextet and a solo work alongside works for traditional orchestral forces. And this was perhaps the essence of the portrait: Widmann is an artist who understands and appreciates convention, yet enjoys pulling it apart to see what makes it tick, and putting it back together again in new and decidedly idiosyncratic forms.

Jörg Widmann © Marco Borggreve
Jörg Widmann
© Marco Borggreve

This kind of mischievous cheek proved beneficial to Mozart’s Symphony no. 41 in C major. One can only imagine that, were it possible for their paths to cross, Mozart and Widmann would get on like a house on fire. Here was a conductor driving along Mozart’s music with an authentically similar mindset, heard to best and most striking effect in the opening movement, Widmann exaggerating its contours such that the work practically postured around the stage. It was essentially less an analytical performance of the symphony than a kind of character study, and if this broader brush approach proved less effective in the slow movement, the way it transformed the minuet into something akin to a swinging drinking song more than made up for it. Likewise, the finale benefited from such full force exuberance, Widmann accentuating Mozart’s askew harmonic moments and coating it all in bubbles and froth.

Doubling up as both director and soloist, Widmann toned things down somewhat in Weber’s Clarinet Concerto no. 1 in F minor. His direction was largely confined to getting the ball rolling and thereafter providing pointers now and again to the orchestra, leading to a display of unspoken communication that was marvellous and, particularly at abrupt tempo changes, uncanny. Though the elegance of the performance was first rate – Widmann articulating Weber’s lyrical lines and scrambling scales with effortless fluidity – special emphasis was placed on the work’s unusual dramatic sensibility, Widmann yanking back the music during its surprisingly dolorous episodes. By contrast, for the final movement he came to resemble a ringmaster at the centre of a carnival, though even here insisting on qualifying the general rambunctiousness with brief instances of reflection.

The evening felt most intense during the three works by Widmann himself. At first glance his early string sextet 180 beats per minute – composed in 1993 when the composer had only just left school – seemed like a cheerful yet trivial bit of juvenilia. Yet the atmosphere of energetic fun, matched by the focus of the players, navigating extremely rapid material, was infectious and it was impossible not to be swept along by it. All by himself, in the performance of his 2005 Fantasie for clarinet solo, Widmann transformed into an avant-garde snake charmer (i.e. a charmer of avant-garde snakes), the instrument practically wriggling out of his hands, Widmann hanging onto it as best he could. With its acrobatic tumbles and flourishes and microtonally-inflected melodies, punctuated by huge slithering glissandi, it was a mesmerising performance that received some of the most effusive applause of the evening.

The composer’s fondness for tweaking and teasing convention was best exemplified by the concert opener, Widmann’s overture Con Brio. The work borrows liberally from Beethoven (specifically the last and first movements of the Seventh and Eighth symphonies respectively, each of which includes the instruction con brio), yet the way this manifested in the music was like an idea on the tip of the tongue, immediate and familiar, yet elusive and intangible, forever just out of reach. It only gradually became obvious that there was something of a game going on. At first, Widmann made the orchestra sound uncertain about its identity, alternating between blank bluster – big, solid chords – and periods of apparent soul-searching, ghostly outbreaks where the forces of the classical-size orchestra (another Beethoven allusion) became almost wraith-like. However, as if in slow motion, the penny dropped. This wasn’t conflicted music, this was an orchestra unable to resist playing with – as opposed to simply playing – their instruments, seeing what they could do in a child-like response to both the production and arrangement of sounds.

This work encapsulated not only the concert as a whole but also the multifaceted musicianship of Jörg Widmann, a composer whose time as the CBSO’s artist in residence came to an end with this concert, and whose uniquely invigorating blend of affection and irreverence will be sorely missed in Birmingham.