Joerg Widmann: Danse Macabre

Defying all expectations, Widmann puts on a dazzlingly subversive performance.

On the afternoon of October 26, I had the pleasure of going along to one of the Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s afternoon concerts. The diverse programme of these concerts are worth looking out for; each costs only £6 for under 26’s, students, and the unemployed. They are a fantastic way to get a sense of national and international musical culture. On this particular date, it was the German composer Jörg Widmann who laid out the swirling and spectral draperies for Halloween with a thrilling performance of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, along with two of his own compositions. Now generally speaking, when I go along to a performance, I come to expect the conductor’s own compositions to be a long drawn out period of waiting for the star piece that shall crown the end of the programme, but Widmann’s uncanny and dazzling pieces proved striking exceptions to this rule. 

It is important to note the genesis of Widman’s work that had him sent to Dubai by a large tech company to write something regarding the cultural exchange between Dubai and Western capital. Rather than anything pleasing to his investors, Widmann’s compositions hilariously subvert this given criteria, and in fact any idea of classical music as a plaything for the upper classes to reassert the inherent value of the avant-garde or authorial integrity.

Beginning first with a nine part composition “Dubairishce Tanze”, Widmann takes the theme of Bavarian folk dancing, whose alternating metres give a staggering “drunk” effect that, along with the snapping and twanging of strings and bows, rather gives the impression, in the best possible way, that Stravsinky, plied with vodka, fell into the Moskva and lay preserved under the ice until the great thaw released his frozen corpse to walk again. Lapsing then into the “Valse mecanique”, we are invited into a toy shop where dolls uncannily turn their heads and dance to a jolting pizzicato whilst the sustained brass notes have us ever checking over our shoulder. The fourth movement, his “Jeux d’eau”, confuses the audience at first as they search for the source of the sound. It is the two percussionists at either side of the stage who splash rhythmically in two buckets of water – unfortunate for the soaked bassoonist sitting just in front. The ”Valse Bavaroise” follows: a playful duet for violin and cello, in which the spinning pirouettes of the second movement of Shostakovich’s fifth symphony can be heard distorted, as if wound discordantly on a cracked music box. 

The UK premiere of Widmann’s “Danse Macabre” follows next. Terrible and final, this last dance is what you’d get if Shostakovich had been consoling himself for a hundred years on Bulgakov’s apricot brandy. Like all the pieces performed, rhythm and intertextuality crown Widmann’s Danse Macabre. Propulsive and morose, it has the orchestra heaving and exhausted, and leaves upon the air a faint whiff of pickled mushrooms and cigar smoke, before the grand, leaping finale of Beethoven’s 7th arouses the senses and speaks with its bold rhythms to each and every part of the body. Conducted and performed to perfection, it is a visceral experience, fleshy and reverberating, to hail in the beginning of the Halloween festival and the period of the dead.

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