This was a clever piece of programming by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra: tricky yet explicable, wide-ranging yet unified. At its centre were two interlocking composers, one of whom also happened to be the evening’s conductor.

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Jörg Widmann
© Marco Borggreve

Jörg Widmann is probably the contemporary German composer whose work is most frequently heard in British concert halls. He’s also widely heard as a clarinettist, but conducting is also important to his work, and he returns to Scotland to conduct a BBCSSO programme next October. This is his conducting debut with the RSNO and there could be no one better to guide both orchestra and audience through his own Armonica.

At Armonica’s centre sits the spectral presence of the glass harmonica, the instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin and famously associated with both operatic mad scenes and the bored stroke of a wet finger on a wine glass. Widmann’s piece is a not-quite-double-concerto for the glass harmonica and accordion, and the two heard together is a sound the like of which I’ve never encountered before; eerie, spine-tingling, uncanny, chilling, other-worldly... you get the picture. The instruments’ icy, disembodied tones gave Widmann all the excuse he needed to prise open the orchestra and extract from it all manner of other sounds you’d never expect to hear from them. Bowed percussion, the noteless scrape of the strings or breathing of winds, the bizarre resonance of water gongs; Widmann used them all in a slow-moving collage of effects that felt like a picture slowly coalescing into form.

Full marks to the orchestra for throwing themselves into Widmann’s score so whole-heartedly and, in the event, so skilfully. Christa Schönfeldinger’s glass harmonica was amplified but still very carefully balanced against the greater sound picture, which was slow moving with occasional frenetic spells of terror. Its overall tone of menace never faltered, which is why I wouldn’t want to hear it every week. It was a gripping listen, nonetheless, and one of the most memorable things I’ve heard from the RSNO all season.

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Royal Scottish National Orchestra
© Sally Jubb

Widmann wrote Armonica as homage to the legacy of Mozart, and Schönfeldinger treated us to Wolfgang’s solo Adagio for Glass Harmonica, written in the last year of the composer’s life. From there it’s only a short jump to other late Mozart in the composer’s last two symphonies, marvellously played thanks to the use of a modern symphony orchestra and a conductor who used a composer’s right to reshape the music in his own form. The RSNO regularly plays Mozart’s piano concertos, but rarely his symphonies, which is a real shame because their Mozart is terrific. Widmann used modern brass and vibrato-rich strings to create a notably large sound that was richer than you’ll hear from many period bands and with a lot more kick. The Jupiter was slightly more constrained than no. 40, but this was energetic, full-fat Mozart and all the better for it.

Widmann’s take was exciting to hear, mostly. He couldn’t resist pulling the music around in several different directions, which sometimes worked but was sometimes self-regarding. The finale of no. 40, for example, wallowed in its pauses, and the first movement of the Jupiter was inconsistent in tempi. Nor did the orchestra seem completely on board with Widmann’s accented adventures, at least not if some rather ragged entries were anything to go by. Importantly, however, he understands the music’s intrinsic drama: the descent into darkness was very marked in the first two movements of no. 40 and he set a lightning fast pace for the Jupiter’s finale. The orchestra didn’t just match it; they thrived on it.