A prominent figure at home in Germany, composer and clarinetist Jörg Widmann came to town Monday evening as part of the New Music From Germany series presented by the Goethe Institute. Appearing with him was the Signum Quartet, also from Germany, a noted interpreter of Widmann’s compositions, particularly his cycle of five string quartets. His String Quartet No. 3 (subtitled “The Hunt”), completed in 2003, a bizarre and often violent trashing of early-19th-
century classical style, took center stage here. The other two pieces were more familiar and sedate: Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet
Op. 76, No. 2, and Carl Maria von Weber’s Clarinet Quintet Op. 34 in B-flat major.
As Widmann explained in brief remarks, his cycle of quartets is conceived as a whole, with each quartet fulfilling the function of a single movement in a five-movement work. The String Quartet No. 3 occupies the position of the Scherzo in this larger structure. For material, Widmann used an insistent rhythmic idea from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and a familiar folk tune employed in several of Robert Schumann’s major pieces.
As the Quartet progresses, it aggressively assaults and dismembers these ideas in what becomes a challenging work of performance art. The players (violinists Kerstin Dill and Annette Walther, violist Xandi van Dijk and cellist Thomas Schmitz) begin by brandishing their bows like weapons, then proceed to growl, grunt, and scream while engaging in all manner of strange techniques: striking the body of their instruments, sliding madly up and down the fingerboard, slashing explosive pizzicato figures. Finally, the violinists and violist physically and sonically hunt down and “kill” the cellist. Ouch. Widmann’s work recalls the music of Russian composer Alfred Schnittke, who also made a career of deconstructing classical models. But Widmann goes much further in the direction of sadism, humor, and physicality.
As an elegant soloist in Weber’s Clarinet Quintet, the versatile Widmann discarded his enfant terrible pose. He coaxed a velvety, tone from his instrument, with beautifully precise articulation in the many rapid scale passages. His pacing in the free-form Fantasia movement was organic and appropriately moody. The Signum Quartet, too forceful and monochromatic in the opening Haydn Quartet, followed Widmann’s lead, providing subtle and balanced accompaniment.