The first of two Hagen Quartet recitals at Carnegie Hall was, more than anything else, a showcase for the foursome’s guest, Jörg Widmann, featured as both composer and clarinetist. As a prologue, the Hagens played four movements from Dvořák’s Echo of Songs (or Cypresses). The series of vignettes had been recast in 1887 for string quartet from a cycle of love songs for voice and piano composed two decades earlier. The arrangements kept unchanged the melodic lines of the original Lieder. They do have a certain charm evident in a solo for viola or in a little dialogue between cello and the first violin, but they are minor works.

Jörg Widmann © 2019 Steve J. Sherman
Jörg Widmann
© 2019 Steve J. Sherman

It’s quite surprising that a composer as prolific as Widmann, who frequently performs with string quartets, didn’t produce a quintet featuring his beloved clarinet earlier in his career. According to his own comments, his first attempt in 2009 was abandoned because “music history… suddenly appeared as a great burden”. He took up the task again eight years later, sensing that “the delay had paid off”. The world premiere took place in Madrid in April 2017, with the Hagen Quartet and Widmann himself. They have played the work multiple times since, with great success, in major European musical centers.

Upon listening to an unfamiliar work, we often add our own Proustian “remembrances of things past”, real or not, the “new” opus being just a catalyst helping our memory to wonder around. During the quintet’s forty minutes, I seemed to perceive snippets from a Mozart soprano aria, one of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words or even a Bruckner slow movement that were certainly never penned. Some other references were more concrete. Widmann pays homage to both Mozart and Brahms quintets from the very beginning: the predominant descending fifth appears in Brahms’ final movement and in Mozart’s first bars (with two intermediate steps). Later, another fragment, a three-note figure (one step up, two down) is also inspired by Mozart’s first movement.

Jörg Widmann and the Hagen Quartet © 2019 Steve J. Sherman
Jörg Widmann and the Hagen Quartet
© 2019 Steve J. Sherman

The Mozart and Brahms quintets were conceived late in their composers’ careers under the sign of downheartedness, despite the earlier opus’ occasional joviality. Similarly, Widmann’s composition seems to have been itself written with “the ink of melancholy” (to evoke – “L’Encre de la Mélancolie” – a collection of essays by Jean Starobinski, the Swiss philosopher and literary critic that recently passed away). The score alternates between sporadic melodies and the sound of rustling leaves. The music flows calmly, like a threnody, occasionally perturbed – alas – by the obnoxious rumbling of the New York subway. There is a moment when you hear just the sound of the vibrating air. There is an attempt to start a waltz. And there are explosions of musical discontent. The clarinet tries to lead the strings somewhere, to a distant and unknown territory, but they seem reluctant to follow. After a vague trip, everything returns to silence.

In the second half, the rendition of Mozart’s Quintet had a truly classical dimension. There was a total lack of sentimentality. Mozart’s phenomenal gift for concision easily came through. During all four movements, Widmann’s clarinet was an organic part of the whole and any timbral incompatibility was tamed by the eagerness to fuse the sounds. The dialogue between instruments, underlined by changes in moods and textures, had an operatic quality. You could hear the same mixture of tartness and sweetness as in Così, composed in the same year.

Widmann has been recently designated as the holder of the 2019-2020 Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall. Many of his orchestral and chamber music works will be interpreted by distinguished musicians on Carnegie Hall’s several stages. It will be a chance for New Yorkers to immerse themselves into a musical universe deeply anchored in history despite its modernistic veneer. These performances should not be missed.