Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Jörg Widmann’s Inaugural Oratorio on ECM

Kent Nagano and Jörg Widmann (photograph by Hannes Rathjen, courtesy of ECM Records, from

This Friday ECM New Series will release a new recording of the music of Jörg Widmann. Widmann has been featured on ECM recordings as both a clarinetist and as a composer. The new album presents one of Widmann’s major efforts, “ARCHE,” commissioned for a major occasion, the inauguration of the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg in January of 2017. As expected, this recording is currently available for pre-order from

Hamburg plays a major role in the history of Western music. Officially known as the “Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg,” the city has played a major role in the emergence of music-making as a profession, rather than as a matter of service to a royal or noble patron. The best known of the early composers to serve as civil servants is probably George Philipp Telemann, who preferred to remain in Hamburg rather than accept the position of Thomaskantor in Leipzig, a position subsequently assumed by Johann Sebastian Bach. (Apparently, the Bach family recognized that Telemann was on to something, since his successor in Hamburg was Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach.)

The Elbphilharmonie was a major architectural undertaking to revive awareness of Hamburg’s significant role in music history (which also included, along with Telemann and one of Bach’s sons, composers such as György Ligeti and Alfred Schnittke). The building itself was both cultural and residential, including both luxury apartments and the Westin Hamburg Hotel. The visual design suggest a hoisted sail, a water wave, an iceberg, or, perhaps, a quartz crystal, evoking at least some associations of Hamburg’s long-standing history as a center for trade.

In accepting his commission, Widmann decided to create a large-scale oratorio reflecting on Hamburg’s maritime legacy. The result was “ARCHE,” a composition lasting about an hour and 40 minutes, divided into five sections, three of which reflect the structure of Catholic ritual, while the other two reflect on Biblical perspectives on the specific tale of the Flood and the more abstract concept of Love. The title itself connotes the Ark built by Noah, but the word itself has roots in both Latin (where it means “chest” or “coffer”) and Greek (where it means “beginning” or “origin.”) The resources required for performance were, to say the least, extensive. Kent Nagano conducted the Philharmoniker Hamburg, three choral ensembles, the chorus of the Hamburg State Opera, the Audi Jugendchorakademie (young voices), and the Hamburger Alsterspatzen (older ones), two narrators (Jonna Plathe and Baris Özden), organ (Iveta Apkaina), boy soprano (Gabriel Böer), soprano (Marlis Petersen) and baritone (Thomas E. Auer).

The sources for the libretto are almost as extensive as the performance resources. Indeed, the movement devoted to Love involves a few jaundiced nods towards the traditions of German art song rooted in the nineteenth century. It is therefore no surprise that the libretto includes texts by Heinrich Heine, Clemens Brentano, and Matthias Claudius and, for that matter, that the ghost of Robert Schumann seems to lurk somewhere in the forest of all the marks that Widmann committed to paper.

Some may be frustrated that the text of the libretto itself is not included in the accompanying booklet. I am not one of them. Over the course of listening to this music several times, I have come to the conclusion that more is to be gained from an appreciation of the basic topics behind the texts than from the details of the texts themselves. Between Widmann’s prodigious command of musical rhetoric and the performance style from both soloists and ensembles, it is not particularly hard to “get the message” of each of the oratorio’s five movements.

Personally, I have to confess that all of my past experiences with Widmann’s music have involved chamber resources. A large-scale oratorio thus constituted a significantly substantial shift in my own listening priorities. There have been any number of cases of composers, past and present, who have tried to make the move from small-scale to large-scale with little success. They tend to succumb to the temptation to invoke everything but the kitchen sink and then get bogged down in overabundance. Widmann’s score never feels bogged-down, neither does it ever convey a sense of being overblown. The Elbphilharmonie was a major architectural undertaking, and Widmann wished to honor it with a major musical undertaking. The extent of his success may be measured by my interest in further listening experiences, even if only to figure out what I missed on previous such experiences.

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