Beethoven’s Seventh @ Birmingham Symphony Hall: CBSO, 10th May 2023 – 5***** Reviewers: David & Paul Gray

Weber – Clarinet Quintet (arranged for orchestra) * Widmann – Con Brio * Widmann – Three Shadow Dances * Beethoven – Symphony No. 7

It is so exciting now and again to come across a creative artist who is a true Renaissance Man (or Woman). In this evening’s concert at Birmingham Symphony Hall, we had just that in Jorg Widmann (b.1973). Widmann really is the whole package: virtuoso clarinettist, composer, conductor, teacher and thinker. Truly a modern Renaissance Man.

Widmann is an extraordinarily creative individual. He possesses great charisma, presence and talent; indeed, one could easily re-ascribe the famous quotation in music history of Robert Schumann’s words on hearing a piece by Frédéric Chopin: “Hats off, gentlemen [sic. gentlepersons], a genius!”

First up was Weber’s Clarinet Quinet in B Flat Op.34 of 1815, here reworked for solo clarinet & a small-ish orchestra. This piece is, in fact, a Clarinet Concerto, and soloist-cum-conductor, Widmann, gave a stunning reading, full of profound expression, fun, quasi-operatic exuberance, and technical perfection.

Widmann is a born performer! One cannot take one’s eyes off him, and he danced around the front of the stage with his clarinet doubling as conductor’s baton. The orchestra was with him all the way, and there was precision and a tight sense of ensemble. Also, in the exquisite slow movement, Widmann and the CBSO played with an intense beauty of tone: with pianissimi so delicate one simply couldn’t help but hold one’s breath: this, so very perfect for the remarkable acoustics of Birmingham Symphony Hall. Clearly, Widmann was playing the Hall as much as he was playing the clarinet and CBSO. Just wonderful.

To end the first half, we had one of two pieces written by Widmann himself, Con brio. This was a terrific tour-de-force after Beethoven for the orchestra, and it had the performers doing highly unusual things with their instruments, but to great effect. Again, hats-off to all concerned in the orchestra, but especially to Matthew Hardy on Timps: who would ever have known that timpani could make such a remarkable set of sounds.

Similarly, to start the second half, we had a wonderful triptych of short dance pieces written for and performed by Widmann on solo clarinet; and with some added, but highly appropriate, electro-acoustic effects. In these Three Shadow Dances Widmann performed each at a different music stand positioned as follows: stage left, center stage, and then stage right.

The composer-performer explained the basic meaning and construction of these Three Dances, and they lived up to everything he promised. We experienced the clarinet played in ways one could never have thought possible, with the body, keys, nuts & bolts of the instrument as important a resource of sounds as the sounding voice of the clarinet.

He used this new and unfamiliar clarinet sound world to great effect, invoking the murky, muted swirling of the sub-aqua in the second Dance, and the earthy colours, rhythms and wildlife of Africa in the Third. An astonishing achievement on a solo instrument.

The concert ended with a vibrant, pulsating reading of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. Clearly a musician who doesn’t tend to do things by halves, Widmann gave us a full-on performance, characterized by big dynamic contrasts, brash coloration, and some break-neck tempos. I have never heard the Scherzo or Finale taken at such a lick. The result was exhilarating in the extreme; and it had about it an air of danger and daring. Thrilling! At the same time, the orchestra managed to maintain tight ensemble and bring out a terrific amount of detail: the CBSO clearly loved every minute of it. As did the audience. Bravo to all concerned.

Jorg Widmann – Conductor/Clarinet * City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

David Gray & Paul Gray are Reviewers for Birmingham, West Midlands and (often) the Three Choirs Festival. If you would like David & Paul to come review for you, drop us a line at

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