Live Recording. London January 2009
Engineer-Colin Still (Optic Nerve)
In March 2003 Peter Sheppard Skaerved recorded works written for him by Widmann,in a recording session that was never released. At the time, these were all first recordings. Here are some unedited outtakes.
Peter Sheppard Skaerved-Violin (Stradivari 1699 ‘Crespi’)
Jörg Widmann-Etudes 1 & 2 (1994-20010
Link to Jörg Widmann – Tränen der Musen
Montepulciano…..The morning after the concert, I was sitting with my coffee on the main piazza… the stage set for a Masaccio. The café is right next to a beautiful, ornamented well, which dominates the side of the piazza opposite the Duomo. Drowsy pigeons were flopping around the square, and the sun was preparing for another day of searing heat. By midday, the long stone bench that runs around the front of the city hall next to the café would be hot enough to fry an egg. So I sat there, revelling in my post-concert hangover, enjoying the sleepy morning rounds of the waking town. All of a sudden, there was an offensively good looking boy sat next to me.
“Hello, Ich heise Jörg…”
We established fairly rapidly that we had no common languages. He only spoke German, and at that point, I was only any use in French or really rudimentary Italian. But within minutes we had established a mutual passion for Brahms and late Schumann, and were happily singing to each other. What a sight we must have made for the locals. Two guys, pazzi, with coffee and cigarettes, singing the Schumann ‘Violin Concerto’ in the town square, before breakfast. That first conversation about Schumann became the model for all of our talk, our work following, which has repeatedly returned to the King Lear-like desolation of Schumann’s slow movement.
Jörg pointed out to me that the theme of the slow movement, space-age music if anything, was also the theme of a set of Schumann’s 1854 ‘Geister-Variationen’, the music of the angels around Schumann’s bed. This was, without question, a real pointer to the meaning of this extraordinary movement. I could not say whether I was impressed, moved, or irritated that I was being given a lesson in the piece by a sixteen-year-old clarinetist-composer. But there we sat in the sunshine, singing away. Then, silence for three years. We did not stay in touch, and I forgot about the precocious young German.
Some years later. The interval of a concert directing Mozart concerti in St John’s Smith Square; The door swings open, and in bursts a dimly recognized face.
“Peter, I am so glad to see you! I’m here in London with my parents, and we saw your name on the poster, and it’s incredible and I have been missing our conversations, and…(all of this in perfect, idiomatic English).”
To be honest, I was spooked by his intensity, so I used the classic parrying technique, usually guaranteed to get rid of on composer-“Wonderful. Write me a piece then, and I will play it.”
Jörg left, and I breathed a sigh of relief, that the blizzard of intensity had blown itself out of my dressing room door.
The following January, Aaron and I were sitting, somewhat catatonic with tiredness, in the interval of of recital in Munich playing Shostakovich, Respigh and Jonathan Harvey in the University Aula. This Hall is a triumph of Bayerisches Juegendstil. My favourite touch,is the astromonical clock on the wall facing the performer. The curved apse behind the platform is decorated with 12 classical thinkers; Plato, Socrates, Pythagoras, Homer and others gaze blankly across the room.
We had settled into our backstage routine. I had a certain amount of cosseting to do on my violin, and so was occupied with strings, rosin, and cleaning, all very comfortingly therapeutic activities. The door swung open. It was Jörg, smiling from ear to ear.
“Here’s your piece.”
He handed me a score, dedicated to me, with a terrifying title “180 Beats per minute, for String Sextet.” From then on, my fate was sealed; once a composer has written you a piece which you’ve commissioned, then it is Brudenschaft, you are bound to them. And so it became with Widmann; since then, his musical world has been one of the ways that I interpreted mine.
IN 1994, Jörg and I set up our ‘workshop’ down the phone lines between New York and London. I was going through even worse insomnia than usual… Jörg would be beginning his nocturnal composition sessions at about 11pm Manhattan time, roughly about the time that my practice/reading would be drawing to a close. For not little while, he had been compositionally silent, but I attributed this to the fact that he was studying at the Julliard School with Charles Neidich, and composing was presumably being forced to take a back seat to clarinet playing.
One night, after this long period of silence, a single sheet of music began to crawl out of my fax machine. The raw elements of a piece appeared, juddering their way through the machine as it struggled to deal with the horizontal lines of the music staves. It fell on the floor next to my music stand. I looked over the score, and excitedly telephoned Jörg in New York City. Armed with a fresh pot of coffee, I played the collection of musical gestures down the phone line to him; we discussed what was beautiful, and what was not. A few nights later, and the fax machine began to whirr again. This time, three fairly densely notated pages fell on the floor. I rang Widmann again, ready for another nocturnal session; I played it to him and waited for his suggestions.
“But you are playing the whole piece; there is nothing else. I have nothing else to say.”
I was stunned. Up till this point, I had known Jörg as a composer of keening rhapsodic virtuosity, an emotional and technical ‘maximalist’. His music had always been filled with wild driving rhythms, and he had a great penchant for Slavic pathos and Jewish melody.
This new piece, ‘Étude’ completely out of character was a stark confessional. It seemed as if he had gone mad. I was stunned. I still am.
I played the work at the first concert of mine that Malene Skaerved, herself a New Yorker, came to, the year before we married. Malene is not musical, and has no ear whatsoever. But she has very writer’s strong instincts for meaning and structure, and an analytical brain like a bear trap.
After the concert, over a coffee, she immediately asked about the ‘New York Piece’. Up till that point, I had seen the work in abstract, coolly conceptual terms, if slightly expressionist. Malene immediately dismissed this.
“Rubbish, can’t you hear the city, the noise of the streets, the sound of New York half-asleep, distant sirens, voices below the window…”
Perhaps I should have been taking more notice of Jörg’s ideas. A few months earlier, he had shown me a Rainier Marie Rilke line that had inspired him to start writing music again: “The breathing of statues…”
To me, his piece had seemed to be explicitly not descriptive, just a series of disjointed tones and exclamations, protests, complaints and lullabies, all stuttering out from silence. Malene showed me the music of the lonely artist, isolated in the big city at night; a counterpoint between the rattle and hum of the streets below, and Jörg’s own ‘Unknown Region’, filtered through the fevered imagination of the poet, a ‘Quiet City’ for today.
At the time, Jörg wrote: “Working, or simply staying awake for more than two hours is impossible. I feel weak, as if there is something taking all of my energy away from me. It took me 7 days to write that single page of music which I today sent to you. As you see, something is happening with my music. Maybe it is a kind of turning point Ive reached (?) This music is silence with some ‘events’ in it, very intense, calm, lonely, harsh and brutal at the same time: ‘Standing vertically on the motion of human hearts’. It’s a letter to you, expressing my emotions far better than these words ever could…I’ve seen Madama Butterfly at the ‘Met’ last night. The piece is not too long, not too short; it’s perfect music theatre although it is lyrical music for two thirds of the time. I’m not actually interested in what’s there, the ‘real’ sound in the moment that you hear it; but rather exclusively in the morbidezza., the retrospective quality of the music, and also the visionary quality of what is just about to come.”
J Widmann, Letter to PSS, 12-1-94New York