Jörg Widmann is a busy man. One of Germany’s leading classical composers, he also maintains a full slate of international engagements as a solo clarinetist. Both sides of Widmann’s musicianship were on display Monday night in an inspired concert with the Pacifica Quartet at the Library of Congress.
As a composer, Widmann engages in an intense but often playful dialogue with the Western musical tradition, and his “Jagdquartett” (“Hunt Quartet”) from 2003 is no exception. The work, given a manic and bristling performance by the Pacifica Quartet, is a deconstruction of the stylized hunting music of the classical period.
The bright opening fanfare — a Schumann quote set to the obsessive galloping rhythm from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony — soon gives way to something much darker. A range of extended techniques, including bow whips, improvised pitches, vocal shouts and careening slides, revealed the ritualistic violence latent in the aristocratic hunt — the savagery underneath the thin veneer of civilization.
Widmann’s act of musical deconstruction could not help but recast our hearing of the concert opener, Haydn’s late Quartet in G, Op. 76, No. 1. In a riveting account of this classical masterpiece, the Pacifica Quartet foreshadowed the violence that was to come. With its highly inflected and rhetorical style, the Pacifica brought out Haydn’s obsessively driven rhythms and jolting fortissimo outbursts in the Scherzo-like third movement. Of course, Haydn’s sunniness reasserted itself at the end of the quartet with a delightfully simple, lyrical theme for solo violin, beautifully played by Simin Ganatra.
After intermission, Widmann joined the quartet as soloist in Carl Maria von Weber’s Clarinet Quintet in B-flat. Widmann may not possess the warmest or fullest of clarinet sounds, but he does have an astonishingly pure and silvery tone, which achieved a penetrating beauty in the arcing lines of Weber’s slow movement. Throughout, Widmann displayed a supple virtuosity and an admirable dedication to ensemble values in what can be a rather ostentatious showpiece. With his agile runs, exquisite soft playing and gorgeous phrasing, Widmann demonstrated that even with his composer’s career, he still has his chops.